Monsters

poisoned river

I’ve been thinking recently about humans and our capacity for evil, provoked in part by a post by Nimue Brown: What Does It Mean to Unpeel a Monster?

There are, perhaps, two kinds of evil people. There are those who are driven by their animal nature; this is the evil caused by lust, anger, desire, and the like. Then there are those whose higher nature has become corrupt. They have come to believe that they know how to make the world perfect. Unfortunately, this usually means eliminating those of their fellow humans – and elements of nature – who fail to be perfect.

The first are more common. The second are more devastating, because they work on a far larger scale; the twentieth century was just one of the periods of human history when millions died to satisfy someone’s vision of a purer world.

In this post, I want to talk about the first type, because we all know these people. We know them, because we are them.

Let’s take an example from myth. For contemporary Druids, one of the core tales is that of Gwion Bach’s transformation into the great bard, Taliesin. This happens when he accidentally tastes the potion of herbs which he has been stirring for a year, distilling the Illumination of Awen from secret and rare herbs gathered by Ceridwen for the benefit of her luckless son, Afagddu. As the process of distillation reaches its climax, the cauldron cracks. Three drops, containing the Awen, fall on Gwion’s hand. The rest of the potion has formed a deadly poison; it flows into a nearby river and is carried downstream to the sea, poisoning the horses of the local lord, Gwyddno Garanhir, on the way.

We rarely think about Gwyddno, or about the farmers and fishermen of his tribe who would also have been affected by the cauldron’s poison. Many people would have lost food, or income. Their lives would have been impoverished at best; some would have suffered greatly as a consequence of this pollution.

We have all seen news reports of rivers fouled by chemical spills, or slurry contamination. We know that often someone benefited from dumping their waste into the water, but we rarely consider that to be any kind of justification. It is unlikely that Gwyddno and his tribe, suffering the consequences of the poisoned river would have had any charitable feelings to the source of the foulness in their river. It is much more likely that they asked each other, and the Gods, “what kind of monster would do this?

Monsters.

I think that this is an under-appreciated element of Gwion’s story. I believe it is telling us that wisdom, creativity, and insight do not come easily. They require long practice, effort, and time. And, sadly, wisdom often only comes through hard experience, and through making mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are big ones. Sometimes those mistakes led to people getting hurt.

The question is: do we care? Do we look at what we did, regret it, and do our best not to do it again? To learn from experience, take responsibility, and become a better person? Or do we look at what we did, and the effect we had on other people and, shrugging our shoulders, decide it’s not our problem and continue to behave the same way? We all know people in both categories. If you’re reading this, you probably like to think you’re in the first group. In truth, most of us are somewhere in-between. It’s a spectrum, not an either/or dichotomy.

This understanding is what brings us to Druidic thinking, I suspect – as well as to most religious thinking and other value systems with which Druids can co-exist.  We accept imperfection. We can tolerate failure, and backsliding, and error – in someone who accepts a value system and who would like to become better.

What about those people who aren’t interested in reflection and self-improvement? The Druidic way, I think, is to try to shape them as a gardener shapes plants; to make the desired path of growth the path of least resistance. That means: providing good examples, both personally and through those we associate with; promoting positive codes of behaviour and values; encouraging friends and, especially, family, and the community at large, to provide positive and negative feedback on behaviour; and a legal system which prioritises restitution, compassion, and the relationship between individual and society rather than a system based primarily on retribution and punishment. This would lead to a society based on something like the Welsh laws of Hywel Dda, Hywel the Good, or the Irish Brehon laws. This is a society which can be seen clearly as an ideal in the writings of Iolo Morganwg.

That, however, is getting away from my point in this post.

My takeaway from reading Nimue’s post was her sense of despair over her thoughts and impulses; the monstrous concepts and desires which lurk in the depths of her mind… and sometimes, perhaps, not just the depths. I feel that this is falling into the trap of binary thinking: that we ought to be perfect and, if we are not, then we have failed, shamefully so.

This just isn’t the case – not in Welsh Druidry, anyway. Goodness knows, I have spent a very, very great deal of time mentally kicking myself, bitterly regretting my stupidity over things I’ve done in the past, and my apparent inability to stop being stupid.

This is part of being human. It’s unavoidable for any mind trying to improve, because we are not perfect and, as humans, almost never can be. As I’ve tried to convey in the Wisdom of the Loom and other posts, the simple fact of being human means that after countless non-human incarnations, in each one gradually and imperceptibly mastering our full capacity for understanding, choice, and compassion, our spirits have incarnated in the only species that has the capacity to fully subordinate our physical impulses and desires to the higher self of the mind.

Of course, simply having the capacity doesn’t mean that we have the ability. It has to be worked at, year after year in every life, in lifetime of human incarnation after lifetime of human incarnation. This is the nature of the journey of the spirit, from Abred to Gwynfyd. Through trial and error, through reflection and study and learning, through meaningful practice, we learn over lifetimes to fully inhabit our humanity: to enjoy being incarnate without being ruled by the flesh; to know ourselves fully, without falling into despair or pride; to comprehend the nature of the world in all its beauty without seeking to possess or master it. When we have finally come to an understanding and full mastery of our own nature, we – which is to say, our eternal spirit – is ready to leave the world of material incarnation and progress to the new world of spirit: still in the material world, but no longer of it – and to new experiences, and to new steps on the long path to the Divine.

We cannot escape our desires, and impulses. They can be truly monstrous, but they are a part of being incarnate in flesh. We can only learn to be aware of them, and to master them. That is the path of spiritual development. Regrets over what we have done is a sign of self-knowledge, and of a growth in self-understanding. To be aware of our unpleasant, negative thoughts and impulses, whilst being able to decide not to act on them, is a necessary part of spiritual development.

To the extent that we can learn to avoid repeating these actions, or to avoid acting on negative impulses and thoughts, we are strengthening the mastery of mind, and of mind over matter, and inching our way closer to Gwynfyd.

Image credits: River by carol mitchell on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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