earthweal weekly challenge: A HALLOWED MOONDANCE



Greeting earthwights, and welcome to our weekly earthweal challenge. This week the links will stay open through Halloween and Samhain, with the next weekly challenge commencing Monday, Nov. 2. Link multiple times, if you like—let’s make this a party!


In traditional cultures the annual round moves from birth to death, first light to last, the virile new year king aging into the toddering king of the old; and with the winter solstice the next year is born from the last, and the next cycle begins.

In Celtic tradition, the cross quarter festival of All Hallows (situated between the autumn equinox and winter solstice) celebrated the end of harvest and the tiding death of the old year. Halloween was the door into that dark; on that night, the veil is thin and the dead come up out of their graves and barrows to visit the living. People dressed up as monsters and animals to scare off fairies and other revenants intent on stealing them into their sidhe. Other measures were taken as well to protect the living from the dead: carved turnips called jack-o-lanterns were hung from sticks with strings and offerings to the fairies were left in fields outside of town.  Households tended Samhain bonfires next to their farms and held “dumb suppers,” in which dead ancestors were invited to join the meal.  The light half of the year thus ended, the  dark half began. Six months later, the blooming season of brightness would be celebrated on May in the festival of Beltane.

As it devolved into Christian practice, Samhain became All Saints Day (Nov. 1), with a separate festival of the dead with All Souls Day (Nov. 2).Halloween traditions however remained sticky, like a corpse riding on one’s back through a spooky night.

It’s good to see some semblance of the old festival today in our Halloween traditions. I’ll carve a pumpkin and hand out candy Saturday night to the few kids who might brave going house to house in a pandemic.

Yet the true celebration and meaning is always deeper in. The darkness of winter (experienced this time of year north of the equator) is deep and cold, sometimes bitter (we don’t get very close to that here in Florida); days are weak and the tide of darkness is strong.

A darkness to fear, perhaps, as we fear the darkness of death. It’s also presidential election season this year in the USA, and our mindscape crawls with the vertigo of falling into a dark pit of squandered history.

But all is not lost that is not first fully harrowed. All Hallows is coming. And as that old strolling bone Keith Richards put it, “Nothing interesting happens where the light is too bright.” My dread clings to the lantern, peering fearfully into a shapeless dark. Somewhere in the dark harrow awaits what is most hallowed. So the dark is fructive. And to go in the dark, as Wendell Berry tells is in his short poem “To Know the Dark” is to embrace it:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.

Dark feet and dark wings: It’s good that the Celts gave the year a dark half, because it’s a pretty full cauldron of lost and forgotten, dead and extinct things, still teeming and shimmering in the paleolithic caves of cultural memory and personal dream.

The candle I like to light at this time of year celebrates a tale from the liminal border between light and darkness. St. Oran’s feast day is Oct. 28, so I’ll be lighting a black candle in a couple of days in celebration of his walk in the dark. Some of you already know it, but his legend goes like this:

Oran may have already been on the Isle of the Druids when Columba and his 12 companions arrived in 563 A.D. to found the Abbey of Iona. (There is also record of an Odrhan who had been sacrificed by druids on the island some 12 years before.)

At first, the abbey construction fares badly. Each day’s work is leveled overnight by some disturbed spirit. Columba sets up a watch to observe what happens at night, but each person set to the task is found dead the next day amid the fallen timbers.

Columba decides to do the vigil himself and sits alone at the site in the howling cold dark. In the middle of the night, a great and terrible being in the shape of a half-woman, half-fish comes to Columba from the surrounding waters. Columba asks the apparition what is repelling his efforts to build at Iona and the fish-woman says she does not know, but that it would continue to happen until one of his men offered themselves to be buried alive in a grave seven times as deep as a man’s length.

Lots are cast and Oran is chosen (other accounts say he volunteered) and stepped down in a hole in the footers and was buried. No wind rises up that night to spoil the work and the construction proceeds without incident.

After three days and nights (it would now be Oct. 31) Columba becomes curious to know how his follower has fared, and orders him dug up. The monks excavate the spot where Oran had been sacrificed, finally uncovering his face. Oran’s eyes pop open, and staring right at Columba he declares, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!”

Horrified, the saint had Oran buried again at all haste, crying “Uir! Uir! air beul Odhrain” or “Earth, earth on Oran’s mouth!” (The saying “chaidh uir air suil Odhrain” or “Earth went over Oran’s eye” is still widely heard in the Highlands and Hebrides.

Despite the frightful encounter, Columba named the monastery graveyard Reilig Odhrain and honored Oran’s sacrifice by saying that no man may access the angels of Iona but through Oran. The bones of many Scottish, Irish and Norwegian kings were sent to Oran’s graveyard; Duncan and Macbeth are interred in the St. Oran chapel at the center of the graveyard.

Spooky, eh? This tale has haunted me for decades now, and I keep coming back to soak in its briny prehistoric moonshine.

(Separately, Neil Gaiman has his own telling of the tale, which you can hear in this YouTube video.)

A blog called The Northern Antiquarian is a lavish inventory of “stone circles, chambered tombs, prehistoric rock art, cursus monuments (and) holy wells” across Northern Europe. In one post, it describes the ruin of an ancient hill-fort on the western shore of Iona where, according to local tradition, “St. Columba saw a rain-cloud which he predicted would bring a plague of ulcers to the people of Ireland. To prevent such a plague, Columba thence dispatched a monk called Silnan to Ireland, armed with some bread which he’d blessed. This bread was then dipped in consecrated water and given to those afflicted with the plague, who were hereafter cured.”

We could use some of that bread here and now, but what I found interesting in the post is that around 1900, the writer William Sharp saw the ghost of Oran nearby that site, and would never go near that place at night again.

Now these shore-side hillforts are being linked to crannogs, artificial islands just offshore which were used for making pottery and further back were used for ritual worship dating back to before Stonehenge. (Hillforts would be a later use of the site.) Iona is itself a small island just offshore the larger Island of Mull, so its sacred use is old, old, old. (One former name for the island is Ioua, a moon-goddess worshipped by the Picts.) At the time of St. Columba’s arrival in the sixth century AD, it had been used by druids for centuries, but it had seen ritual use for millennia. Up until the eighteenth century is was ringed with 360 standing stones, but they have since been pushed into the sea. (When my father visited Iona in 1977, he vigiled on night on Columba’s grave and had a vision of a tribe of standing-stone people coming close and closer; they were horribly ugly, and yet his heart filled with love for them.)

Crannog at Loch Bhorgastail, which shows the stone causeway leading to the site.

These crannogs are a sort of above-ground the New Grange passage grave, with a narrow path over water to the womb-shaped ritual center. And New Grange is a crafted version of Paleolithic cave-systems like Lascaux and Chauvet, where one squeeze through a black passageway into a cavern which torchlight revealed painted magnitude. Writing poems for me is a similar ritual use, descending into the mind’s dark — sometimes a well, sometimes a sea, sometimes a cave-system and other times a woman’s voice—to enter an old still enduring mystery still shining in darkness.

Darkness and light. Another version of the Oran legend shows up in the story “The Annir-Choile” by William Sharp (the writer who had an encounter with Oran’s ghost above), anthologized in The Washer of the Ford, and Other Legendary Moralities and Barbaric Tales (1896). In this tale the monk Cathal is dispatched from Iona by St. Columba to visit St. Molios in his sea-cave on the island of Arran. The Pictish heathen there had just been converted, but Cathal has an encounter with the chief’s daughter which shakes his new Christian faith to the core. He falls in love with her and renounces his faith; the next day the two are discovered sleeping together, are bound and brought to Molios.

In punishment Molios  banishes the woman and has Cathal thrown alive into the hollow of a great oak, there to die. Molios bids two men to stand guard on the tree for three days. On the first night they hear Cathal singing praises to the moon-goddess Ioua. The next day one of the men see a fairy woman named Ardanna coming close, and the guard slips from his newfound religion to fashion a flute from an ash branch and commences to play the old airs. The second day a voice is heard once from the tree, then not at all the third day. The two men, having fulfilled their duty, walk away.

In the full moonlight of the following night, Cathal wakens in its flood and finds himself in the green world. There he embraces a fairy queen who had ever shone in the eyes of the king’s daughter. She tells him the green people are the spirits of the trees. They embrace and are one.

St. Molios vigils at the Doom Tree every year on the day of Cathal’s sacrifice, speaking to his old friend and saying how sad he was that the Evil One had claimed him. Twenty years later, when St. Molios is very old, on his annual vigil he hears a laughter in the tree. “Where are you, Cathal,” Molios speaks into the tree. A voice behind him says, “I am here,” and when Molios turns around he sees Cathal as the young man he was, standing naked in the moonlight.

Strange was the voice: faint and far the tone of it: yet it was that of a living man.

“Is it a spirit you are, Cathal?”

“I am no spirit. I am Cathal the monk that was, Cathal the man now.”

“How came you out of hell, you that are dead, and the dust of whose crumbling bones is in the hollow of this oak?”

“There is no hell, Culdee.”

“No hell!” Molios the Saint stared at the wood-man in blank amaze.

“No hell!” he said again; “and is there no heaven?”

“A hell there is, and a heaven there is: but not what Colum taught, and you taught.”

(Oran’s words from the grave to St. Columba echo vastly here)

“Doth Christ live?”

“I know not.”

“And Mary?”

“I know not.”

“And God the Father?”

“I know not.”

“It is a lie that you have upon your lips. Sure, Cathal, you shall be dead indeed soon, to the glory of God. For I shall have thy dust scattered to the four winds, and thy bones consumed in flame, and a stake be driven through the place where thou wast.”

Once more Cathal laughed.

“Go back to the sea-cave, Molios. Thou hast much to learn. Brood there upon the ways of thy God before thou judgest if He knoweth no more than thou dost. And see, I will show you a wonder. Only, first, tell me this one thing. What of Ardanna whom I loved?”

“She was accursed. She would not believe. When Ecta took the child from her, that was born in sin, to have the water put upon it with the sign of the Cross, she went north beyond the Hill of the Pinnacles. There she saw the young king of the Picts of Argyll, and he loved her, and she went to his dûn. He took her to his rath in the north, and she was his queen. He, and she, and the two sons she bore to him are all under the hill-moss now: and their souls are in hell.”

Cathal laughed, low and mocking.

“It is a good hell that, I am thinking, Molios. But come … I will show you a wonder.”

With that he stooped, and took the moonshine dew out of a white flower, and put it upon the eyes of the old man.

Then Molios saw.

And what he saw was a strangeness and a terror to him. For everywhere were green lives, fair and comely, gentle-eyed, lovely, of a soft shining. From tree to tree they flitted, or passed to and fro from the tree-boles, as wild bees from their hives.

Beside Cathal stood a woman. Beautiful she was, with eyes like stars in the gloaming. All of green flame she seemed, though the old monk saw her breast rise and fall, and the light lift of her earth-brown hair by a wind-breath eddying there, and the hand of her clasped in that of Cathal. Beyond her were fair and beautiful beings, lovely shapes like unto men and women, but soulless, though loving life and hating death, which, of a truth, is all that the vain human clan does.

“Who is this woman, Cathal?” asked the saint, trembling.

“It is Deòin, whom I love, and who has given me life.”

“And these … that are neither green phantoms out of trees, nor yet men as we are?”

“These are the offspring of our love.”

Molios drew back in horror.

But Cathal threw up his arms, and with glad eyes cried:

“O green flame of life, pulse of the world.O Love! O Youth! O Dream of Dreams.”

“O bitter grief,” Molios cried, “O bitter grief, that I did not slay thee utterly on that day of the days! Flame to thy flesh, and a stake through thy belly—that is the doom thou shouldst have had! My ban upon thee, Cathal, that was a monk, and now art a wild man of the woods: upon thee, and thy Annir-Coille, and all thy brood, I put the ban of fear and dread and sorrow, a curse by day and a curse by night!”

But with that a great dizziness swam into the brain of the saint, and he fell forward, and lay his length upon the moss, and there was no sight to his eyes, or hearing to his ears, or knowledge upon him at all until the rising of the sun.

Now here’s the good part of the tale: Molios is so moved that he discovers there is heart to faith, far greater than the holiness which had previously only angered his mind. He returns to his sea-cave cell, haunted by the encounter. On night he wakens hearing plashings in the sea. Looking out he watches seals diving and singing in the silver moonlight. He bids the seals to come close and repents of his former rage against  them, telling the seals henceforth he will only tell “the white story of Christ.” Molios broods on the mystery of Cathal as he fades toward death, listening to the seals calling to each other in moonlight, “We too are sons and daughters of God.”

* * *

Amen and ahem. So many ways to enter and play and deepen inside that tale: the Doom Tree with its portal to the green world, the animate otherworld where trees are elves in moonlight, the Oranite voice from down under and the monk in the sea cave repenting of his ways to the seals. So much is waiting for us in the moony night…

This Halloween we will be treated to a “blue” moon, the second full moon of the month; according to the Farmer’s Almanac, Halloween blue moons re-occur in 19-year cycles. Our last was in 2001, just a short while after the 9/11 attacks; the next will be in 2039, 2058, 2077 and 2096. As this will be a five-times-a-century event, let’s celebrate this waxing old light by going merrily into the dark and dancing in the hallowed moonlight.

All sorts of inroads and adventures you can take on this challenge:

  • Tell your own story of a descent into darkness and return.
  • Write of moonshine and dark brightness.
  • Encounter a ghost and haunt us with its image and voice. Who are these visitants from what Hamlet called “the bourne from which no traveller returns”?
  • Are the elven still to be found in moony places?
  • Re-live a classical remake ofthe myths, like Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” Colerige’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or Spenser’s Faerie Queen.
  • What is your favorite folktale, and why? Where has it led you?
  • Would anyone like to turn present politics into an All-Hallows fright feast? (Such a telling does might help drive a stake into our worst fears.)

The moon is waxing toward full—let’s weave silver enchantments and dance in its dark tide!

Again, this week’s challenge will stay open through Sunday night; feel free to link multiple times.

— Brendan



earthweal open link weekend #42

The Siberian jay in the deepest forests of Lapland. Photo:
Florian Smit/2020


Happy Friday,

It’s open link weekend #42 at earthweal. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Monsieur Linky will be active for this forum until midnight Sunday EST when the next weekly challenge rolls out.

Happy linking!


earthweal weekly challenge: SPIRITS OF PLACE

The 200-year-old oak tree Split Oak, for which Split Oak Forest in southeast Orlando (FL USA) is named after. The tree split itself in half about 60 years ago due to the weight of its own branches, yet it’s still growing.


In the 10th century Icelandic saga Landnámabók (or “Book of Settlements”) there is a tale of a family who had to move their farm because of a flow of lava on their land and they were left with few animals until one of them had a dream:

One night Bjorn dreamed that a rock-dweller (bergbui) came to him and offered to enter into partnership with him, and it seemed to him that he agreed. Then a he-goat joined his goats, and his livestock increased so rapidly that he was soon prosperous; after that he was called Goat-Bjorn. People with second sight saw how all the land-spirits followed Goat-Bjorn to the Thing, and followed his brothers Thorstein and Thord when they went hunting and fishing.

What of these rock-dwellers? H.R. Ellis Davidson writes in Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe (Syracuse University Press, 1988) the word sometimes translates as “giant,” but not of the sort you’d find in Asgard.

The most detailed account of a rock-dweller is to be found in a strange saga, Bar/Jar Saga Snefellsass, which is included among the ‘Family Sagas’ because it is set in Iceland and not in remote lands of magic and adventure. However it is filled with supernatural characters, and the hero, Bard, is called ‘god of Snafell’.  He was a Norwegian, fathered by a giant, and fostered by another giant, Dofri of Dovrefjeld in Norway. From Dofri Bard learned history and genealogies, feats of arms and knowledge of the future, while the giant’s daughter became his wife. Later Bard avenged his father after a killing, and then left for Iceland. Things did not go well for him there, and after a time he disappeared from among men, moving across a glacier and living in a cave in the mountain beyond it.

The saga states that he was more of a troll than a man, so people called him the god (Ass) of Sruefell. People in that district made vows to him as to a god, and they called on him when they were in trouble. He helped one man in a wrestling match, and another after an attack by a troll-woman, and was always ready to defend men against evil and hostile beings. From time to time he was seen wearing a grey cloak and hood with a belt of walrus hide, carrying a two-pronged stick with a spike for crossing the ice.

Like his foster-father Dofri, he acted as fosterer and teacher to promising young men. A twelve-year-old boy called Odd accepted an invitation to visit him in the mountains, and found himself in terrible conditions of storm and cold: ‘He stumbled on, not knowing where he was going, and at last became aware that a man was walking through the darkness with a great staff, letting the point rattle on the ice … Odd recognized Bard, god of Smefell.’ (Bar/Jar Saga). Odd stayed a winter in Bard’s cave studying law, and was later known as one of the wisest of the lawmen.

He married one of Bard’s daughters, but she died three years later. Bard was said to have nine daughters, and one, Helga, was a strange figure who wandered about the land, ‘usually far from men’, and made secret visits to farms. She would stay up most of the night playing a harp, but resented intrusion, and a Norwegian who tried to discover who she was had his arm and leg broken to punish his curiosity. Bard associated with various super­natural beings and was respected as the strongest among them. Although he gave protection against evil spirits and trolls, he was hostile to Christianity, and after his son Gest became a Christian he deprived him of his sight. (103-4)

As it turns out, land-spirits populate the folklore of Iceland and Norway. Some are mountain dwellers; in one account, and Icelandic settler offered sacrifices of food to a waterfall near his house. His sheep flock increased greatly because he made good decisions as to which should be slaughtered in the autumn and which were worth keeping. Another made offerings to one of the rare trees in Iceland, and a third trusted in the spirit living in a great stone near his house.

This last tale about a spirit in a stone has several interesting variations, Davidson writes.

In one version of this tale the spirit is called ármaôr; ar means harvest or season, and the implication is that the being in the stone could bring about a prosperous harvest. In the second version however he is called spamaôr (seer), the word used for someone with power to foretell the future. These two functions of the land-spirits appear to be linked, for not only did they bring good luck and prosperity to their worshippers, but they also had knowledge of the future and could give advice to those who consulted them. In this case the farmer received counsel by means of dreams: ‘He tells me beforehand many things which will happen in the future; he guards my cattle and gives me warnings of what I must do and what I must avoid, and therefore I have faith in him and I have worshipped him for a long time.’  (104)

In the tales there is no suggestion that these spirits travelled with the Vikings to Iceland; they were there when the settlers arrived, and closely bound to features of the land.

Friendly spirits were distinguished from evil vaettir, who were hostile and destructive, like the Norwegian trolls. The land-spirits could be offended by violence, and it was said that for a long time no one dared settle in southern Iceland where Hjorleif, one of the first settlers, was murdered by his Irish thralls; this was not because the place was thought to be haunted, but ‘because of the land-spirits’.

It was evidently risky to alarm or anger these powers. The early Icelandic laws included a prohibition against ships with dragon-heads on their prows coming into harbor, in case the land-spirits were offended by a threat of hostility.  In the nineteenth century an Icelandic clergyman recorded that certain rocks and stones in north-eastern Iceland were called ‘Stones of the Landdisir’ (land-goddesses). It was said to be unwise to make a loud noise near them, and children were forbidden to play there, for bad luck would come if they were not treated with respect. (104-5)

I am reminded of my patron saint Odhran (his feast day comes later this month on the 28th, three days before All Hallows) who was sacrificed to appease an angry spirit who had been disturbed when St. Columba bid his monks to dig the footers of his abbey at Iona in 563AD. Odhran/Oran may be a tuletary of that land-spirit, as his name is close to both ármaôr and spamaôr and his sacrifice at the October full moon is intricately bound to the legendary second sight of St. Columba. (Indeed, after his sacrifice—Oran is buried standing up in the footers—St. Columba appoints him the tuletary angel of the abbey graveyard, Relieg Odhrain).

These spirits of place—deities intimate with the local landscape—are found in sacred practice around the world. The Romans had their genius loci or protective house-deities worshipped by the household and were portrayed holding a cornucopia (horn of plenty) and a patera or libation bowl. In Asia, these numinous spirits are still honored today in city pillar shrines, spirit houses and household and/or business shrines. Also from Norse mythology are the Landvaettir or “land wight,” a spirit of the land which could be as small as a rock or as large as a region of the land. Shinto has its Kami, holy powers resident in elements of nature (and their qualities) and venerated dead people. In Hindu faith, Dvarapalas are fierce guardians of the gate and Lokapalas, the guardians of the cardinal directions; in Buddhism the Lokapalas are either wisdom protectors or spirits of indigenous belief who had been subjugated by the Buddhist master Padmasambhava.

Then, of course, there are the fairies, former deities shrunk to local sprites who take residence the shade beneath a daisy and hold court at the edges of the wood. … Further in, the elven diaspora, still powerful where things are wild.

There is relation between humans and the spirits of place which engage formally in ritual or accidentally by straying from the path. Alexander Pope does so in this verse letter to the Earl of Burlington when planning out his garden:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington

I am reminded here of the garden of the Findhorn community in present-day Scotland, where planters invited devas — a Hindu imagining of land-spirit — to co-create abundance. (The results of the partnership were sometimes astonishing; William Irwin Thompson in The Findhorn Garden writes of 40-lb. cabbages and roses blooming in the snow.) Dowsers seek water with wands empowered to find leys of energy, and feng shui practitioners in China were learned in the art of geomancy, harmonizing the plans of houses with the energies in the land.

Spirits of place resonate still in the charm of a given vista, the healing properties of a spring and the kindred feelings we have for a great tree or winding river or untouched glade. Are they what is virginal in nature, what has power to change us, or things echoing with a vast magnitude?

Here in Florida, a small remaining remnant of long-leaf pine forest is in the crosshairs of a proposed housing community in southeast Orlando. (The madness here is that people continue to flock to a state burning up and drowning.) Split Oak Forest is tiny—a rectangular strip only 2-1/2 square miles—and is one of the last strands of the pines in state which used to be covered with them. Turpentine production, logging, orange grove planting and then housing development decimated old growth Florida. It’s only a ghostly remnant, but a fierce political fight is underway to save what is left from the bulldozers. Native Florida is in that tiny space and deities still reside there. So to the state’s vast shoreline (shifting endlessly) and lakes and flora (which is where Florida gets its name).

In celebration of the ármaôr land-spirit of harvest, write of a land-spirit closest to you. They may reside in your house or under it; you may have an affinity for a tree or shore. Is that relation changing as the Earth warms? Is partnership and affinity with both the living and the dead? Whatever spirit you find, please may it be LOCAL. What does your poetic divining rod find in your back yard? Who knows? An entire cornucopia of earth-mythologies may pour from the wee folk we discover!

Write of the SPIRITS OF PLACE.

— Brendan


earthweal weekly challenge: EARTH-MASKS

Greenland mask

Mercea Eliade records a story from the Kwakiutl Indians of a young man who grew feverish and seemed to die. It was too cold to bury him, so they laid him at the outskirts of their village. Soon they heard the baying of wolves. In the morning they heard the young man singing his sacred song … The man said he had fallen asleep and woke in a council of shamans who initiated him into shamanistic rites. Afterward they put on wolf masks and began to howl, beating time on their sacred drums. The man emerged, sought his home, and woke. He called himself Naualakume, and was a great shaman of wolves, and had within him the transformed shaman who would make him dream “about what I should do when curing really sick ones, as he was giving instructions to me.” (From Primitives to Zen)

Most masks you find now in museums or online galleries, except at Halloween when the human tribe has license to indulge in some of the old pagan fanfare.

In the tale related above by Eliade, wolf-masks are devices of initiation; yet Eliade elsewhere notes that shamanic masks are rare. “The shaman’s costume is itself a mask and may be regarded as derived from a mask originally … Wherever it is used (and outside of the shamanic ideology properly speaking), the mask manifestly announces the incarnation of a mythical personage (ancestor, mythical animal, god). For its part, the costume transubstantiates the shaman, and it transforms him, before all eyes, into a superhuman being.” (Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964), 168-9)

Mbunda tribal mask, West Gambia

So the mask is a device used to stir up a ritual frenzy but is not an end in itself. This is important, as modern humans place too much faith in literal things.

The mask in primitive use is a veil-parter and invoker. Joeseph Campbell writes,

The mask in a primitive festival is revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being that it represents—even though everyone knows that a man made the mask and that a man is wearing it. The one wearing it, furthermore, is identified with the god during the time of the ritual of which the mask is a part. He does not merely represent the god; he is the god. The literal fact that the apparition is composed of A, a mask, B, its reference to a mythical being, and C, a man, is dismissed from the mind, and the presentation is allowed to work without correction upon the sentiments of both the beholder and the actor. In other words, there has been a shift of view from the logic of the normal sphere, where things are understood to be distinct from one another, to a theatrical or play sphere, where they are accepted for what they are experienced as being and the logic is that of make believe—“as if.” (Primitive Mythology, 21-22)

Attic ritual mask, c. 600 BCE

Karl Kerenyi’s monograph on Dionysos brings the mask into even sharper focus. He notes that wooden masks were used in the Dionysos cult, either worn by dancers or hung on a pole or tree in the center of the rite. The mask said little—it was just another human face—but the voice from behind found a deeper authority, and the eyes staring out became that of a god who was persona but also life-force, what Kerenyi calls zoë:

The zoë that is present in all living creatures became as spiritual reality as man opened himself to it, perceiving in it a kind of second sight. Man did not form a concept or idea of zoë. He experienced its immediate nearness in the animal. To those who did not wear them, the masks communicated a strangely ambivalent experience of zoë as uncannily near and yet at the same time remote. Such was the impression made by the god himself when he was only a face. He appeared to man with human features: more immediate than zoë in all other forms and yet lifeless, as though removed from every living thing. (Dionysos: Archetypal Image or Indestructible Life, Princeton U Press 1996)

Dionsysian ritual survived in Greek drama; the masks of comedy and tragedy—hilaria and trisitia—corresponded to spring and autumn festivals when dramatic competitions would be held. The heightening of emotion—those hilarious, tragic swings—were cathartic for the chorus which stood in for all of us.

Those masks survive to this day in situation comedies and police dramas on TV, the ecstasy and agony of manic depression and the buffoonery and despotic despair of authoritarian regimes like the Trump White House.

The god behind those masks survives, too. Dionysos makes our wounds tolerable because we look upon them through his fictive mask, putting an as-if proscenium between actual and imagined horrors. We can say the unsayable because the words as metaphors can’t really burn us. We can go to Hell and back, like Dante, and get the girl in the end. We can write of the darkest things and go on with our normal, quiet and untroubled lives. Melville wrote to his friend Hawthorne after finishing Moby Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb. It is not a piece of feminine Spitalfields silk — but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.”  The mask of Dionysos allowed Melville that precious little distance between the real and imagined that allowed him, as Gaston Bachelard once put it, “to sing reality.”

Masks are important in our work as poets. Here is Rilke:

… More and more in my life and in my work I am guided by the effort to correct our old repressions, which have removed and gradually estranged us from the mysteries out of whose abundance our lives might become truly infinite. It is true that these mysteries are dreadful, and people have always drawn away from them. But where can we find anything sweet and glorious that would never wear this mask, the mask of the dreadful? Life – and we know nothing else —isn’t life itself dreadful? … Whoever does not, sometime or other, give his full consent, his full joyous consent to the dreadfulness of life, can never take possession of the unutterable abundance and power of our existence; …To show the identity of dreadfulness and bliss, those two faces on the same divine head, indeed this one single face, which just presents itself this way or that, according to our distance from it or state of mind in which we perceive it – : this is the true significance and purpose of the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.  (letter translated and anthologized in Stephen Mitchell’s The Selected Ranier Maria Rilke)

Louise Gluck was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—an extremely rare honor for an American poet (T.S. Eliot was the only other one; Bob Dylan was named for the prize but he’s a songwriter, not a poet). I’ve always loved the Rilkean detachment of her voice, oracular and personal at once: To me the very essence of the mask. Here is a poem from her 2014 collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night:


Small light in the sky appearing
suddenly between
two pine boughs, their fine needles

now etched onto the radiant surface
and above this
high, feathery heaven—

Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine,
most intense when the wind blows through it
and the sound it makes equally strange,
like the sound of the wind in a movie—

Shadows moving. The ropes
making the sound they make. What you hear now
will be the sound of the nightingale, Chordata,
the male bird courting the female—

The ropes shift. The hammock
sways in the wind, tied
firmly between two pine trees.

Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine.

It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them

because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?

I have used the screen name of Brendan in my posts of online poetry. The full name of Brendan MacOdrum pays homage to a pair of mythological figures, that of Brendan the Navigator and MacOdrum of Uist, the poet who was said to come from the seal-tribe which I believe is the primal background of St. Oran, my blog’s namesake. The use of a screen name hearkens back to the mask. By speaking through the Brendan mask I can dramatize my dailiness; my history becomes the exempla of mystery; the narrative becomes impersonal the song of humankind. (That is, when I’m not wearing out my readers with bitching and bemoaning.)

Dionysos makes our wounds tolerable because we look upon them through his fictive mask, putting an as-if proscenium between actual and imagined horrors. We can say the unsayable because the words as metaphors can’t really burn us. We can go to Hell and back, like Dante, and get the girl in the end. We can write of the darkest things and go on with our normal, quiet and untroubled lives. Melville wrote to his friend Hawthorne after finishing Moby Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb. It is not a piece of feminine Spitalfields silk — but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.”  The mask of Dionysos allowed Melville that precious little distance between the real and imagined that allowed him, as Gaston Bachelard once put it, “to sing reality.”

We have desperate need now for earth-masks, vehicles of transport from human to nonhuman. Masks can help free us of our literal bondage to an only-human existence in place since late Mesopotamia. Neoliberalism has us so locked into a suburban lifestyle that it seems madness to reject our fossil-fueled comforts; it may take a mask at the window at midnight to break the consumer enchantment in which we are imprisoned.

Haida transformation mask, Pacific Northwest

So, for this week’s earthweal challenge, take up a mask and start singing. Your mask can be tribal or mythic, literary or psychological. Assume the persona of a ghost or ancestor, a sea-beast or an eagle. What does the mask empower you to say and sing? How different is the world when viewed through the mask? Does the mask allow you to enter collective or personal cellars or sidhes or spookhouses it would be devastating to do otherwise? How does your voice change? What happens to language devices like music, metaphor, meaning, rhyme? Does the mask allow a bridge from human to nonhuman earth? Do new imagined futures emerge from its oracles?

You are welcome to use any of the images in this post for your mask, find one of your own or write the verbal semblance of one, which is what you will do regardless.

Let’s summon a wild choir with our MASKS!

— Brendan