Druidic Science, Elvish ears, and the religion of slugs

hanfu 1

The three principal sciences of man: sciences respecting God; to know what he is himself; and to know the tendency of species and nature. From these three all other laudable sciences inevitably spring.
Barddas: The Triads of St. Paul.

Druidry in the Welsh tradition is not incompatible with science; indeed, the support and furthering of science is a fundamental part of our tradition.

Where we differ from much of contemporary science is that we deny the principle, set out by Rene Descartes, that mind and body are separate. We agree that basing science on study of the material world is necessary; we deny that it is sufficient.

Contemporary science denies the existence of the spirit world, of nwyfre and prana and qi, and of the ‘supernatural’: Druids, committed to the understanding of ourselves and of the world assert that if science can not yet show how and why these things work, it is because scientists have not yet been able to frame the right question. Millennia of human experience are not disproved because they have not yet been captured in a laboratory.

There is another problem with much of today’s science, and it is one that also plagues today’s paganism: the attitude, inherited from Christianity, that humans are the pinnacle of development, and that the complexity of nature is centred on us. This is, I think, the meaning in the triad above,  sciences respecting God. Druids understand that science must be married with humility: as science delivers to us ever-greater power in the material world, we must remain aware that there are entities far greater than us, who share the universe with us; we must remain humble in the knowledge that humanity is but a stage on a far longer spiritual journey, and we must always remain aware that other forms of life are our fellow-travellers on that journey. Iolo Morganwg used the term ‘God’ because that was the word for his time; we today in the Welsh tradition can acknowledge the Gods of our ancestors, and the Fair Folk and the Forest People.

And, slowly, science is catching up with us.

I want to repeat here a personal anecdote which I recently mentioned in response to a post by Nimue Brown:

Many years ago, when I was living on the shores of Cardigan Bay, I stepped outside late at night. An immense, golden, full moon was hanging over the bay, lighting up the hills. reflected in the sea. Right in the middle of the path in front of me was a slug, stretching as far as it could upright, towards the moon, and gently swaying from side to side. To this day, I’m convinced that it was dancing in praise of the Moon. I’ve never forgotten it. I think that was an important step on my path to Druidry.

I’m sure that if I told that story to a scientist I would be given some lifeless explanation about light sources, and about how there would have been no ‘thought’ involved on the part of the slug. I know what I saw, though; I saw a consciousness in ecstatic worship, dancing in praise of Arianrhod.

And that makes me think: as I wrote in another post about Arianrhod:

Month after month, year after year, she is ever-changing. She is constant. Never the same two nights in a row, always the same year after year. The names and faces of a people come and go; they are born, grow strong, grow weak, and pass on. Their children do the same, and their children like them. The individuals wax and wane; they enter into their fullness, they sink into their darkness: but the tribe endures, and remains constant; it remembers its glorious forebears, and maintains their traditions.

This shows the truth of Iolo Morganwg’s inspiration:

There are three occasions for death on the part of God: to better the condition in Abred; to renovate life for the sake of reposing from then on endurance of Ceugant; and to experience every state of the living and life, and what by nature and incident belongs to it, that is, in order to collect the particular kind of knowledge, and thereby obtain utter and complete knowledge respecting every animation and being, and every quality and essence, for otherwise than by means of this progression in Abred it is impossible to learn and be skilled in all the sciences, which can by nature and of necessity exist; and without them it is impossible to bear with the circle of Gwynvyd.
Barddas: Theological Triads

We die so that we can be reborn; so that through life after life, in form after form, we can understand both the world and ourselves, through direct experience and contemplation.

It seems to me that the most important task for Druids in our times is to assist with the task of the Oracle of Delphi: to make real her motto γνῶθι σεαυτόν, “know thyself”.

I don’t mean that in any abstract or metaphysical self, or even in any purely psychological sense. I mean it in the most real sense: we need to understand that we are matter infused with spirit, and that neither can be treated as the ‘real’ us on its own.

Acupuncturist Lisa Rohleder puts it very well in her book Acupuncture is Like Noodles:

Exactly how putting tiny little needles under the skin accomplishes all that is something that naturally we would all love to know, and of course nobody has the slightest idea. Sometimes people explain it by invoking “the mind-body connection”. Interestingly enough, that whole concept makes no sense in a universe that includes qi. There can be no mind-body connection, because there was never any separation in the first place. A human being is a continuum, with one end being dense and physical, the other end being ethereal and spiritual. Both ends depend on qi to animate them, and qi is also everything in the middle that is not quite physical and not quite spiritual. (p28)

I remember that when I first tried meditation, back in the mid-1980s – it was widely regarded as being something really rather bizarre, and certainly wasn’t given any scientific credibility. Nearly twenty years later, in 2003 when I told people that I was going on a meditation retreat for ten days, I was asked quite seriously whether that meant I wanted to open up my mind to demons. Erm, no.

At the same period in fact, research on Buddhist monks was showing that meditation changes brain structure, demonstrable evidence of  consciousness literally transforming matter. More, the physical changes to the brain altered behaviour in turn. Science is in fact learning just how wrong Descartes was. Mind and matter are one; different places in a spectrum of energy. Once science can fully accept that, it will have made progress towards understanding nwyfre, or qi, and how traditional forms of medicine work.

Science is also stumbling, slowly, towards understanding that humans are far from unique in having mind, morals, and culture. We are seeing evidence emerging of culture in animals being actively taught, and passed from generation to generation. We are learning more about animal cognition. We are seeing that many animals are self-aware, and can recognize themselves in a mirror, for example. We are seeing more and more evidence that animals understand moral values, and make moral decisions.

Even in this field of scientific research, though, on mammals and birds which are so closely related to us, there are disputes over the validity of experiments based only on the human experience (for example, many experiments on animal self-awareness are based on vision, using mirrors – because this is how humans perceive each other. If a dog does not recognize itself in a mirror, is this because it is not self-aware, or is it because canine intelligence is based on smell,  and humans cannot understand it, because they cannot experience it?).

These insights support the message given in Barddas back in the eighteenth century, which I discussed here: that spirits move through ever more complex forms of life, allowing them to experience the universe and moral choice in a progression of existences with ever-great capacities for understanding and self-mastery.

Most exciting of all, perhaps, are the more recent breakthroughs in understanding plant intelligence.

We know that plants can learn and remember. We know that plants can recognize kin. We know that plants form communities and actively share resources. We know that plants are able to manipulate some animal species to attack predators.

We know that many plants contain substances beneficial to human health. Let us, as a thought experiment, consider that this is a strategy actively pursued by plant intelligences, intended to enlist humans to protect the plants; to keep them healthy, and to eliminate predators.

What a blow that would be to human pride! I think people would find that very hard to accept. And yet, if we want to be genuinely scientific, we must at least give the hypothesis credence, and wonder: how might we test it?

If we cannot be sure we properly understand animal cognition, what chance is there that we could understand trees?

This human pride, and human-centric understanding of intelligence, is something that we need to overcome. We seem to have accepted, in our search for extra-terrestrial life, that if we ever encounter aliens, they will have intelligence in a form very different to our own. It’s likely that it will be incomprehensible to us, having developed under radically different conditions.

And yet, here on our own planet, the concept of intelligence in animals and (especially) plants is dismissed out of hand – because we cannot find in them the biological structures we associate with human intelligence. Perhaps we need to wonder: what would a non-human intelligence look like? If we do, that road will lead us to understanding the Forest People, and at long last treating them with true Druidic respect.

There is another domain, though: the domain of Annwn, which overlaps and deepens our own world. This is the world of the Gods, and of the Tylwyth Teg, the Fair Folk. They too are intelligences, and they too are not human.

I mentioned elvish ears because I was reminded of an article by Morgan Daimler, Why Do Elves Have Pointed Ears? It’s worth reading the whole article, but I was thinking of this passage:

The concept has now become ubiquitous, spreading throughout popculture and into folklore, so that it is simply taken as a given that elves and fairies have pointed ears. More recently I have noticed a shift particularly in anime and rpgs from the smaller leaf-shaped ears of Victorian art and Tolkien to excessively exaggerated, elongated ears that stretch above or beyond the head and are more reminiscent of donkey ears in shape.

I’m pretty much disconnected from much of Western popular culture, but I do seem to get the sense that movies, illustrators, etc are running out of creative steam. How can they depict aliens, or the inhabitants of the Otherworld, to a market that is still predominantly North American, or European? The answer is that they lean on less familiar cultures. It really does seem to me that many Elves (and aliens) have eyes with epicanthic folds; they very often have prominent cheekbones. Going back to at least The Phantom Menace, Padme Amidala’s clothing was – ahem – heavily influenced by traditional Mongolian, Manchurian, and Russian designs. Many images of the Fair Folk that I’m seeing in the media today seem to be strongly influenced by traditional Chinese hanfu,

hanfu 2

The pointed ears, increasingly exaggerated, are needed as markers to tell the audience that these characters aren’t in fact Chinese!

Hanfu 3

There is perhaps a tendency to try to humanize both gods and the Fair Folk: some people want to be comforted, and to believe that they are just like us, really, and care about us and our needs and our wants. That they are safe.

This is also a mistake, driven by the same human-centrism that deforms our relationship with the animal and plant worlds. Some Gods, and some of the Fair Folk, are positively disposed to humans. There are many that are not, though. (And many more don’t care about us either way). The Gods and the Fair Folk are themselves; they are not us. They have their own concerns, and their own goals; their interactions with us are to get things done that they want done, not necessarily what we want. The Fair Folk change in their culture over time, as we do; the Gods change more slowly, in their own ways. But, they do not change their essential nature. The Fair Folk do not become our happy helpers, and a god of battle and madness does not become a stand-in for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Druidry works well with science, but we work with much more. Where many scientists acknowledge only the material world, we understand that matter must be suffused with spirit – and slowly, slowly, science itself is proving us right. We seek always to understand ourselves, so that we can continue our journey of spiritual development. We seek always to understand the world we live in – to bring health and prosperity to our community, but also so that we can understand the other beings, visible and invisible, with whom we co-exist. With knowledge, we seek understanding; with understanding justice and the love of all existences.

As the Druid’s prayer from Barddas reminds us:

Llyma weddi’r orsedd o Lyfr arall
Dyro Dduw dy Nawdd;
Ag yn nawdd, nerth;
Ag yn nerth, Deall;
Ag yn Neall, Gwybod;
Ac yngwybod, gwybod y cyfiawn;
Ag yngwybod yn cyfiawn, ei garu;
Ag o garu, caru pob hanfod;
Ag ymhob Hanfod, caru Duw.

Duw a phob Daioni.

The Gorsedd Prayer, from another Book
Grant, O God, Thy protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all existences;
And in the love of all existences, the love of God.

God and all goodness.

The Gorsedd Prayer in Welsh:

Image credits:

Featured image: Mo Dao Zu Shi 魔道祖师 by RICO Lee on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

Second image: Hanfu by RICO Lee on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

Third image: Moon sight 中庭地白树栖鸦,冷露无声湿桂花。by RICO Lee on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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