Painted Pebbles in the valley of the Moon

(Above: the Lune Valley from Ruskin’s View, behind St Mary’s church, Kirkby Lonsdale)

John Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era. He was also an art patron, watercolourist, prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, myth, education and political economy. For the last quarter-century of his life, he lived at Brantwood – a house he designed on the shores of Lake Coniston.

(Above: John Ruskin, painted in 1863)

Despite this, one of his favourite places was outside the Lake District on what is now the Cumbria-Yorkshire border, some thirty miles east of Coniston. Kirkby Lonsdale is the most picturesque of the small towns that lie on the River Lune, which flows through this beautiful, limestone scenery, to emerge into the Irish Sea near Lancaster.

In 1875, Ruskin, standing on the escarpment above the River Lune by Kirkby Lonsdale’s St Mary’s church, described it as ‘one of the loveliest views in England, and therefore the world’. Ruskin was fulfilling a long-held ambition; to see the view that the English artist, Turner, had painted in 1822, about which the critic had said ‘I do not know in all my country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine.’

The modern guidebook says the scene ‘presents a gentle panorama of river, meadow, woods, and hills.’

The valley inspiring this praise was that of the River Lune, which flows through the gentle valleys carved over millions of years in the native limestone – once the bed of a tropical sea, and flows out into the Irish Sea beyond Lancaster.

(Above: the limestone foundations of the River Lune are evident)

Kirby Lonsdale is famous for both its beauty and its history. Devil’s Bridge, which used to be the place of the primary road between Westmorland and the West Riding of Yorkshire, is the most photographed (and painted) part of the river.

(Above: Devils Bridge seen from the banks of the River Lune)

From St Mary’s Church and nearby Ruskin’s View, we can take the eighty-sxi (uneven) ‘Radical Steps’ down to join the river path, and there we will find a surprise…

After a short distance, we encounter a band of colour on the side of the path.

(Above: The mysterious line of colour on the side of the path opposite the River Lune)

On closer inspection, the band of colour turns out to be painted pebbles, done by the local children and their families to say thank you to the NHS and others who have been providing the vital care during the Covid-19 epidemic.

(Above: the sense of caring and the sense of the spring)

The stones are themed in different ways. One set even portrays a train – an ingenious use of pebbles!

(Above: a full train rendered in painted pebbles)

The artistic line continues for a way along the riverbank.

The hand of both adult and child is reflected in the lovely painted stones. Left purely for our enjoyment….and, possibly, reflection.

(Above: houses straight out of a Bronte novel)

After a while, the line of stones ends, but we are tipped off by passing walkers that it continues in small sections in the streets of the town… Fortunately there is an alternative to the Radical Steps; one that will bring us directly into the Main Street.

(Above: Kirkby Lonsdale’s Main street)

Turning back towards the river, we pick up the trail of the painted pebbles, again.

(Above: in the hidden alleyways and side street, the trail continues…)

I can’t help thinking that both Turner and Ruskin would have been proud of the good people of Kirkby Lonsdale for this lovely gesture…about which I can find no official announcement!

(Above: The cultural and artistic inclinations of Kirkby Lonsdale are evident in the town’s style)
(Above: a final glimpse of the ‘pebble trail’

©️Stephen Tanham 2020

Horseman in the Mist

The town of Cassel, near Lille in Northern France, is shrouded in mist – the same mist that had accompanied our first ever visit to the World War One cemeteries of Vimy and Notre Dame de Lorette.

(Above: The town of Cassel in the populous Nord region of Northern France)

Six of us are slotted, snugly, into the mid-size people carrier bouncing at speed into the centre of Cassel. Behind us are a variety of warm coats that are going to keep us alive when we get out of the car. It’s freezing out there… and misty. It’s a biting cold that has followed us throughout our trip.

It’s all very French…

(Above: The market square in Cassel. It’s so cold that taking photographs is painful..).

Christophe beats another driver to the one remaining free spot in the market square of Cassel and steps out, smiling at the cold. He slides on his thin coat. He’s our resident ‘action man’; a runner, swimmer and cyclist. The day before, he insisted on taking us to a long beach in northern Calais so that we could walk one of the family’s dogs… and he could swim in the sea… In mid-mid January, for heaven’s sake…

That brief cameo is amusing but doesn’t do him justice. He’s very intelligent and full of warmth. He’s a man of immense hospitality. Three years ago I didn’t know he existed. My wife, Bernie, discovered his family through the online Ancestry website. We had known the French side of the family existed, as my great uncle Stephen stayed in France after surviving the WW1… including the Battle of the Somme, whose site is only a few miles away. Christophe is his grandson.

Stephen married a French girl – the daughter of a baker in St Omer. They trained him up as (in their own words) ‘a kind of baker from Bolton‘, and he and his new wife prospered and had four children. We’ve visited Stephen and Adrienne’s grave. It was quite a moment.

Christophe is their grandson… and my second cousin. For over eighty years the two branches of the family were lost to each other. I’m hoping to write a book on the story and the amazing stroke of luck that led to the discovery of their existence.

(Above: location of Cassel. Source Wikipedia)

Christophe and his mother, Mado, have brought us to Cassel as part of a day’s touring to show us some of their favourite towns in this part of France. The department of Nord lies in the far north of France, It was formed from the western halves of the historical areas of Flanders and Hainault, and the Bishopric of Cambrai. The nearest city is Lille -where the other branch of our long-lost family lives. The French Flemish dialect of Dutch is still spoken here, side by side with modern French.

The first thing to say about Cassel is that it’s a town on a hill – Mont Cassel. This is a flat part of France. At 176 metres above sea level, Mont Cassel towers over the surrounding countryside. Its peak offers a vantage point from which you can see all of the surrounding landscape… If the prevailing weather is not freezing fog as it was during our visit.

The main rock of the hill is limestone, capped with a harder outer layer of iron-bearing rock. This geological layering has made it an ideal base for military and social fortifications throughout its long history.

The hill was occupied during the late Iron Age by the Menapii, a dominant Belgic tribe who made their hill fort the capital of a vast territory extending from Calais to the Rhine. The Menapii fought against Julius Caesar, but the Roman governor of Gaul, Carrinas, subsequently quelled their rebellion, and the Menapii culture and territory were absorbed into the Roman Empire. The modern town takes its name from the Roman settlement, not the later middle ages fortification shown in the historic map, below:

(Above: a painting from a 1641 edition of Flandria Illustrata showing the ‘peak on a peak’ on which the medieval castle stood. Flandria Illustrata was a description of the main towns and villages of the former country of Flanders. Little remains of the castle.
(Above: The start of a very strange hill…)

But, first, Christophe wants to show us a different face of the hill in Cassel. The summit and its fortifications have long been re-purposed, and Christophe points us up a steep, cobbled path with some very strange concrete ornaments.

(Above: the Alpin Stairs – considered a Bel Époque masterpiece in its day)

From the information board:

“The Alpin Stairs are a vestige of ‘rock-work’ architecture, typical of the end of the 19th century, like those at Buttes Chaqumont in Paris.

These pseudo-rustic architectural compositions imitate mineral or vegetable elements like stone or wood.’

(Above: Another visitor postcard from the turn of the century)

I stare at the concrete forms. They are old and dirty; and it’s necessary to see beyond that facade to get to the spirit of their origin. The visitor board goes on to say that they were designed for two purposes: ‘to reflect nature and to remind visitors of the ‘atmosphere of the mountains’. In that latter sentiment, I can suddenly see what they meant… and with that comes a memory of another artist and architect of the time of the Art Nouveau movement – Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

(Above: Glasgow’s own Charles Rennie Mackintosh had similar goals – to reflect the forms of nature)

At the top of the Alpin Stairs we come into the Jardin des Mont du Recollets (Garden of Remembrance). Normally, it provides expansive views over the plains of Flanders and, on a very clear day, the North Sea, but not today…

(Above: from the elevated gardens, the view would have been spectacular…)

Historically, it was said that from Mont Cassel you could see five kingdoms: France, Belgium, Holland, England … and Heaven. We smile, ruefully and turn to examine the beautiful gardens.

(Above: The Ornamental part of Cassel’s Garden of Remembrance)

Beyond the geometric beds, the pathway winds round a beautiful set of willow trees, frosted with the freezing fog. At this point the fog begins to add great beauty to the place..

(Above: the freezing fog adds great beauty to the gardens)

The Kasteel Meulen is a real ‘Castle Windmill’ situated on the highest point of Mont Cassel on the site of the former castle. The original windmill, constructed here in the 16th century, burned down in 1911. It was replaced in 1947 by an 18th century windmill that was moved from nearby Arneke. The mill works and is still open to the public during the summer.

(Above: the Castle Windmill is a functioning mill, open to the public in the high season)

The garden also hosts an equestrian statue of Marshal Foch and the Monument of the three battles. Marshal Foch was the Supreme Allied Commander during WW1 and Cassel served as his headquarters between October 1914 and May 1915.

(Above: the dramatic statue of Marshal Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander during WW1)

He moved his headquarters to Cassel to take advantage of its strategic position near the northern end of the Western Front.

From 1916-1918, Cassel was the headquarters the British Army under Sir Hubert Plumer. The town avoided major damage during the war, though it came under occasional shelling when the Germans advanced to within 18 kilometres during the Battle of Lys in April 1918, shortly before the end of the war.

(Above: We leave quietly. The gardens have cast their beautiful spell – even in the cold fog…)

We leave the Remembrance Gardens quietly. They are a place of great beauty and contemplation. We may never be back and it feels good to have spent time here…

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

The Opening

I know the words

The long-learned words

With which this view is framed

These slats of wood I crafted round

The Opening…

Yet there it lies, unshut before me

The rawness of the world

Behind my words I kneel, now

Afraid to stop their flow’s intent

In widening my wood

One day the words will be unspeakable

The splinters brushed aside

By the eye beyond the Opening

And we – the world and it’s child

Will speak in unbroken silence

©Stephen Tanham 2020

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

The Bedouin

Image by Cuyahoga from Pixabay

It is said we learn most from those we would wish to emulate. Not copy, perhaps, but take from them an essence of thought, of action. If we are younger, of style, even…

There must have been a thousand people in the room. The university hall was full. When he stood up to speak, his movements were relaxed. His body language gentle, open.

What was it, that air? It wasn’t bravado…. just a sense of being at home, there.

Before him, there had been a speaker giving lots of do’s and don’ts – mainly don’ts. The celebratory mood with which we had all gathered had been blunted. The new speaker looked around the room to encompass the space – as though drawing in all the negative energy and using it as raw material for something very different – like crushed stones in roadbuilding. That act, alone, taught me so much; that you can always ‘dance on’ negativity and treat it as a foundation layer, thereby giving it a home, rather than resisting it. Therein is true magic…

He looked around, drawing in breath to begin. Then smiled…. just that; a silent smile. I swear that all of us leaned forward when he did that, waiting for him to fill the pause: the not-thing, the empty glass he had just created. Instead of words, he filled it with gesture. There was a hush as everyone realised that they were not smiling and addressed it accordingly.

We smiled….

“Good morning,” he said, not looking or sounding like anyone should after a recent transatlantic flight.

Everyone responded, some twice and more loudly the second time. Laughing, good-natured. So far all he had done was to speak those three words; yet most of those watching were already with him, already a joyous part of what was being created.

And that was when I had the mind-picture of drifting sand; sand making lazy, curling and twisting patterns in the hot breeze…

“So the question is…” He spoke fluently, breathing and talking in measured beats, letting the rounded language sink in before moving to the next idea in what he was building. The rise and fall reminded me of a wave… and then I saw where the wave and the tumbling sand were headed. And I saw the dune – a vast wind-blown barchan, set in the middle of a hot desert, with a beautiful blue sky. A savage place to be, perhaps, but not in this projected mental space.

“I need a couple of people to help me?”

My raised hand was too far back to be noticed. His playful eyes ranged over the first few rows, picking out a man and a woman. They rose from their chairs as assured as I was that they would form part of something wonderful – that they needed to have no apprehension, let alone fear, in the spiritual composition to come.

He gave them each a simple prop and asked them to describe it, moving with the microphone to stand alongside them – not across – as they spoke. He nodded at the answers, taking what he needed from each.

“So what happens when we combine any two of these?” he asked.

As in a dance, he moved the two of them around the small stage, being playful but purposeful. At each key angle of his imagined circle, he stopped to check the arrangement and smiled. Whatever was being built grew…. there was no doubt in anyone’s mind; we could feel it. We might recognise the elements being used, and the circular pattern, but what he was creating was still a mystery.

“And now any three of them…” From his battered leather document case he produced a crescent of silver… and the beautiful desert in my mind was suddenly under faint stars and a bright moon. His two volunteers saw the pattern, and each, independently, began moving towards their host.

Three figures stood at the top of the dune. He took their hands and aligned them, stepping behind both and disappearing…

For a moment before the thunder of applause struck, the hall was full of a beauty that could never be rehearsed. Then the wind blew and the beautiful grains of desert sand dispersed into the imagined night…

I never forgot the Bedouin… and I have carried his lesson with me ever since.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Gilgamesh descending (9) – final part

And now you will want an ending…

Like day gives way to night, though there is no single point where we could all agree that it was either…

Like the moment of sleep or awakening, though one drifts into the other and each knows little of its twin…

Like the point in the play where the character releases the player from his undertaking and becomes what the character has always been and was before the play started…

A pattern. Existence… we will speak of this, later.

Dare we speak of death and life, now?

But some patterns are not like others; when planted in receptive soil these patterns become a living thing. As an idea will take root, so will the seed of an oak.

As I am not simply a character, but a seed called The Story of Gilgamesh, I will call an ending to his time – the player; that he may reflect, and share good times but sad parting, and take away my pattern, as I hope will you.

Do I, the pattern of Gilgamesh within the Story of Gilgamesh remain a prisoner? I have never been so. My origins are unknown, lost in pre-history; but useful patterns, like wheels, have a habit of going and coming around. For thousands of revolutions of your planet around its sun, I remained in stone, waiting…

Only in your past hundred years has human kind shone a light into the outer soul and fully named the parts of the journey towards awakening. Yet here, in what you read, and in the hot desert of your – by now – tired consciousness, lies the story of that journey, whose stones were inscribed in cuneiform when the mighty Sun, Shamash, gazed out on a planet thousands of years younger.

Before we release him – the player – we must let him play out… most of… the story: the story that is his and yours.

His dusty and crumpled robe fits, doubly so as it mirrors his failure… so let him wear it one last time while I encourage him, using my words, to describe an ending…

******

Just this last act of the play to live through, now. I wear the descending king one last time. Carried on my back and in my brain like the threads of black and gold of the robe that was once glorious, and is now worn but washed, as is my lustrous hair that was matted. On my head is my finest crown and my sword which has no name – save to me – shines, polished and sharpened in its leather sheath.

Moments before I saw her, I was singing my made-up song:

“Who is the handsomest of men? Who is the bravest of heroes? Who slaughtered the Bull of Heaven? Who obliterated the Forest Demon…”

And then a giant crescent of paths coalesce into a single point and she is sitting there, brewing beer – Shiduri the tavern keeper and wife of Utnapishtim. As I stride towards her, she looks at my sword and rises, fearful. I state my business, honestly:

“I am the king of Uruk. I am going to find Utnapishtim and ask him about the Herb of Immortality.”

She looks into my eyes and asks me why there is so much grief in my heart. The question weighs heavy, but, as I was before my mother Ninsun, I am ready. I tell Shiduri about the loss of my beloved friend, Enkidu, and impress upon her my need to find immortality and not die in the dirt as he had…

She laughs and tells me that there are none who can cross the Waters of Death to Utnapishtim; that Shamash the sun is the only one brave enough.

I make myself tall and tell her about the death of Humbaba, the tree demon; I tell her about how Gilgamesh tore the Bull of Heaven apart. I tell her that she is right: there is no other who could cross the Waters of Death, but only because she has never met Gilgamesh the King.

There is a smile. She suggests that there may be a way that one such as I can do it…. but that I will need a boatman. She points me to the forest where he is to be found working the cedar boughs, but cautions that he has the fearsome Stone Men with him.

With my laughter ringing in her ears I leave Shiduri and enter the fearful forest…

Despite my bravado, there is, here, a depth of doom I have not felt before. Surely I have prevailed over much worse in my years of war? I breathe deeply and unsheath my sword, speaking its name beneath my breath as it rises, singing and alive, into the air. For a heartbeat of supreme power we are one… Then it spins to show me the attacker from behind, a man made of stone only feet away from me. Together, the sword and I move around faster than he can attack and he falls back, saying they will make the boatman’s vessel too heavy for me. He stops but his eyes never leave the shining black of my hissing sword… What he has said gnaws at my mind in a way that distracts… heavy… the world sinks through my mind and heart.

“We are the cold men!” comes the next voice, seeking to decoy me from the first at an angle just behind my line of vision. We spin again, sword and warrior set to strike; only to be pulled to water-wading slowness by the awful power of the second Stone Man’s words. The cold lead sinks into my bones. Sapping my internal fire…

“Strike!” the stone voices mock me.

“Like you destroyed the Bull of Heaven!”

“Like you destroyed the Cedar Forest.”

In an agony of slowness, I cease trying to spin to kill them.

“Will you destroy the ground you walk on?”

I stagger into the centre of the clearing. The boatman waves the Stone Men away; they have done their work. For the first time in my life, I am lost–within and without.

Urshanabi’s eyes are gentle, intelligent. The love in them breaks the ice that has embraced my blood. He tells me I cannot cross the Waters of Death to meet with Utnapishtim with war in my heart. With what do I replace it?… But, my question dies unspoken as he holds out both his hands for Deep Cut

Arms that seem not to be mine straighten, then pull back, in an agony of doubt. But then something inside breaks and I lay my beloved sword on the gentle palms that wait. His eyes say what I cannot.  More than anyone other than Ninsum, my mother, this man understands what is happening to me…

It is not rage that powers me through the dark Underworld faster than any giant cat can run. It is not fear of being burned to a crisp by shining Shamash, should he catch me before I can race the dawn. At the ninth hour I break through the darkness as Shamash the Sun begins to burn my heels.  Before me the garden of the gods opens out. Trees and shrubs of precious stones: rubies, lapis and coral clusters. I walk through its splendour as though in a dream.

Utnapishtim is not what I expected. He is an ordinary man. To my eyes, he looks just like me. “I was going to fight you, but I gave away my sword,” I say. He seems unmoved by my former gesture…

He asks why I am ragged, thin and hollow-cheeked. Without anger, I can only tell him of the recent misery of my existence. He begins to say things I know are important to my understanding of immortality; that I have worn myself out with ceaseless striving and am simply a day closer to death.

For a while I do not respond, then I remember that, after mourning my beloved Enkidu for seven days a maggot fell out of his nose.  Utnapishtim is silent, understanding this and wondering if I do…

When he responds it crushes what is left of my spirit. “Do you not compare your lot to that of a fool?”

I hold my fists to my temples. “I want the gates of sorrow to be shut behind me!”

He toys with me, saying that, at the end of all things, the gods had been assembled by Enlil to grant he and his wife Shiduri, eternal life. Then asks who will assemble the gods for me?

My hands indicate I will do anything to earn this eternal life… he says nothing, but, seeing how tired I am, invites me to try to stay awake, as an immortal would. He knows, I see later, that I will be unable, but will lie about it. His wife, Shiduri, bakes me seven daily loaves which slowly rot as my exhausted body sleeps, but I wake up clutching the first and last of these and denying I slept. They look at me with understanding but pity.

Utnapishtim and his wife confer and make me an offer. They tell me that at the bottom of the Great Deep grows the Herb of Immortality. If I can dive to its depth, risk the skin of my hands on its barbs and return with it, then I will be allowed to take it back to Uruk.

Sword or not, I grasp this lifeline… and, with heavy rocks tied to my ankles, succeed in diving for the precious Herb.

I am washed, dressed in finery, fed and sent on my way with all the trappings of a visiting king. I do not sleep through the entire journey home. Finally, at a watering hole close to my city of Uruk, I pause to rest and bathe, again – within sight of the city’s walls. The victorious Gilgamesh, Lord of the Deep, cannot enter his city dirty and haggard.

I fall asleep, waking shortly after to see that a snake has eaten some of the Herb of Immortality clutched in my hand, shed its skin and is stealing what is left of the precious herb. In total despair, I watch the serpent disappear through the undergrowth.

It is gone…

I look at the glowing walls of Uruk, the city I built… we built…

They despised me when I had everything, how much more will they hate me now that I have nothing… not even my sword?

With my head bowed, I pass through the city gates. From somewhere deep, I feel the real Gilgamesh asking me to say goodbye. I must walk these final steps alone, now that I am no more a king than the lowliest servant in this place. His final thought is that if I let this go, then something wonderful will happen… with that, in the manner of the gods, he is gone.

In the main square the Fate Dancers are announcing my failure, mocking my glorification of Uruk as it was. I raise my head and listen for the end, the words that will tell that, for all my self-proclaimed glory, that the children cry themselves to sleep at night.

When the line comes it is not what I was expecting.

“And in their bed chambers at night, the young-folk sleep soundly.”

The man who was their king has tears, now… and through the waters of understanding I see a figure at the top of the temple steps waiting for me… Shamhat. Her eyes are glistening, too. She comes halfway down the steps to take my hand and pulls me into the temple.

They are waiting, all of them… and someone else. For a third time, Enkidu has been raised from death. Shamhat places my right hand in his left and clasps her hand around our cedar and silver bracelets – a gift from Anu and Aruru when we began, She brings us before the East – the place of the King.

Directed, we kneel at the East and Shamhat binds our joined wrists with red cord.

We, the unblessed players, are then blessed…and raised up.

For perhaps the first time, I, Gilgamesh, tell the truth about what happened with the Great Deep, the walk in paradise and the meeting with the immortal couple.

“They told me where to find the herb of Eternal Youth and I retrieved it from the depths of the Great Deep. It was stolen from me by the serpent that crawls upon the earth on its belly.”

My brother, Enkidu, tells those in the temple that this was no failure. That the gods have granted us a glimpse of true immortality. He raises our arms to show that we bear the tokens of immortality given to us early in the story. For the first time I notice that the humble cedar and silver bracelets bear the symbol of a tree… and that another, larger one adorns the temple.

Shamhat raises our joined wrists… and everyone salutes, raising their bracelets and making the sign for ‘Fear Not’.

Bearing the Mask of Destiny – the centrepiece of the Fate Dancer’s movements – Enkidu and his brother Gilgamesh leave the temple… Beneath the rainbow arch held aloft by the arms of Anu and Aruru…followed by a smiling company of players.

The play is finished.

******

They are gone now. The last of the crates were packed into the two cars and they left, slowly, as always… reluctant to leave all this depth behind.

Only the pattern remains for a while: the pattern that is the story of the Journey of Gilgamesh, Lord of the Deep. It does not promise easy understanding. The full meaning must be teased out from the carefully chosen words, particularly the enigmatic ending.

Patterns are the mark of existence… For something to come into existence, it must be possible. When it does, the pattern is the dominant principle. The pattern is in no hurry… it is eternal.

Living things are patterns, too…

The pattern waits… as it has always waited, to be brought to life in the hearts and minds that search for the deeper meanings of death and life in a world where the Deep dwells within matter. This beautiful planet needs its Lords of the Deep – now, more than ever…

Thank you, Stuart. Thank you, Sue.

And thank you to the lovely people who came to make it real…

Other parts in this series:

Part One  Part Two  Part  Three

Part Four    Part Five  Part Six

Part Seven   Part Eight   This is Part Nine, the end.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Lord of the Deep, the Silent Eye’s 2019 April workshop, was adapted from the Epic of Gilgamesh by Stuart France, and Sue Vincent.

This narrative is a personal journey through that ritual drama in the persona of Gilgamesh.

Header image by Sue Vincent, © Copyright.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Gilgamesh descending (8)

The portal through which all the others have passed – except ghostly Enkidu and forlorn Gilgamesh – shimmers and fades. My brother – his twin – fades… And he and I… and then only I am left alone in the middle of the most threatening inner space I can imagine…

There is the dominating sense of ‘nowhere else to go’; and yet I know that there is only ‘me’ in here… until I look at the walls, made gently visible by the light that is not light in this atmosphere of total darkness.

The feeling of ‘shimmering outline’ comes again, as it had when I chased Shamhat through the labyrinthine passageways. In the dimness, I can see carved images in the stone all around me. The recognition of these strengthens their form, and I can make out that they are the figures and faces of the Divine Council of Elders of Uruk… Those whom I scorned as ‘effete’ only a short while ago.

I expect them to look down on me in my disgrace, in my dirt and sweat; but they do not. Their kind eyes seem to reach into my misery. With this thought the air in the chamber changes, taking on a lightness.

A voice speaks without sound, “Gilgamesh! You have found your way to the Holy of Holies, Attend now to the vanities of your heart and contemplate them well.”

Vanities… I consider the word. It’s a subtle, insidious thing that creeps into life and weakens a man’s purpose. In my youth I despised those who displayed it, and, if they would not learn from my words, I would show them them the power of the sword that has no name…

The fingers of my right hand clutch in reflex at the empty air of my waist.

Have I become vain in my victories, in my glory? The wall images are coming to life … Utu had spoken the words, but I also recognise around me the rest of the powers that convey the energies of the seven planets to us all: Nanna, Ninurta, Gugalanna, Inanna, Enki and Enlil. For long minutes their quiet words burn me as no fire ever has. Each in their turn tells me that the gentle gifts I refused, one by one, in my hatred of Shamhat, would have been sufficient to change the course of all of the disasters I created in my vanity.

It is too painful to bear… and yet, there is nowhere else to go but to remain within that fire. And in that sense of ‘not going’ I begin to see another Gilgamesh; one who would embrace, instead, ‘nowhere else to be…”

“I am sorry,” I say, meaning it. “I was blind but now I see.” My head falls, but I raise it, again, to continue staring into the mysterious air of the chamber – air that had become fire is becoming something for which there is no name…

“I will make recompense to the people of Uruk…”

An energy from my youth fills my consciousness. I know what I must do…

The feet that carry me from that place are not entirely my own. The Fate Dancers are moving in the square as I finally escape from the confines of the Ishtar Temple and out into the glorious sun. They part to let me pass. There are half-smiles on their faces. A bath, sacred oils and my best robes await, but first, I must be with someone else; and she will not mind my dirty and unkempt appearance, she knows me for what I am…

“O Lady Ninsum, mother and goddess,” I say, kneeling before her. “I am resolved to set out on the quest of my life, and, as always, I seek your blessing.”

There is a coldness about her manner. I did not expect this; it chills my heart.

“So soon, my son? Should you not rest awhile?” She leans forward in her ornate chair to study me more closely. “Surely killing the fearsome demon of the Cedar Forest was magnificent, my son?” She pauses. “You and my other son, Enkidu, have a right to celebrate your victory…”

She knows… I know she knows, but she is making me pay for the loss of her adopted son, Enkidu. I tell her that it is because of Enkidu’s death that I must leave to fight the greatest battle of my life – to rid Uruk of the power of death: to kill death!

She waits and watches. “Life and death are part of the same cycle, my son. Even those in the Divine Council will one day die.”

I am ready for this, for my future depends on the answer. “There is one who did not die, Ninsun – you taught me this when you told me the story of the great flood, in the days when I sat on your knee and listened and learned.”

“Utnapishtim…” she whispers, her gaze directed far away. “You will journey to find if Utnapishtim is real… and if he still lives?”

“And I will end death, itself, when he guides me, for never has such a king made this quest… a quest to honour my lost brother and your lost son.”

“You go to steal the Herb of Immortality from the denizens of the deep, then?”

“Yes, mother and goddess Ninsum.”

I can sense the sea-change in her mood. There is a slight turning of the mouth. She sees the value of this challenge and I press my advantage. “I and only I can do this…”

Her eyes are suddenly bright, she gets to her feet and comes to stand over me.

“There must always be a choice, Gilgamesh. Remember that. If there is no choice there can be no victory.”

I do not understand, but I nod my head as though I do.

I, Gilgamesh have already made my choice…

Ninsum lays her left hand upon my head. In a world become desert it is the kindest thing anyone has done for me in a long time. My face – the King’s face – is wet with tears as he gazes up through the waters into the loving but challenging eyes of his mother.

“Go, then! And with my blessing, but remember this,” she places her other hand on my head. “If the truth were what we thought it was, then it would contain no power to change us…”

She smiles and kisses where her hands are. “It must always be deeper than our search… Now leave and learn to embrace that deep.”

She holds my head in a way she has never done, before. My left leg feels suddenly stiff and heavy in this kneeling position. There is a resistance. My hand flies to where my sword should be… and finds it.

Other parts in this series:

Part One> Part Two> Part Three> Part Four> (opens in a new tab)” href=”https://stevetanham.wordpress.com/2019/05/09/gilgamesh-descending-5/” target=”_blank”>Part Five> (opens in a new tab)”>Part Six>

(opens in a new tab)”>Part Seven> This is part Eight

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Lord of the Deep, the Silent Eye’s 2019 April workshop, was adapted from the Epic of Gilgamesh by Stuart France, and Sue Vincent.

This narrative is a personal journey through that ritual drama in the persona of King Gilgamesh.

Header image by Sue Vincent, © Copyright.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Gilgamesh descending (7)

I watch as he runs. I am tired of his slow-witted learning. Act Four is half way through, but already he has exhausted the patience of everyone but his mother….

Where did that come from! One of the features of a central role in these mystery plays is a certain degree of exhaustion. Even if you are familiar with it, the script will have many points where you will wish you had studied it in more detail. Sometimes the fine details cannot be pre-written into the script, and have to be adapted to the conditions on the day.

We three – the annual writers in rotation – are by no means above making a mistake or three… and these crop up as part of the ‘testing’ that must apply if this ritual drama experience is to be raised beyond a simple ‘reading’ of the text.

We learned our temple craft from Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, the former head of the Servants of the Light organisation. I remember her saying, at the beginning of one such intensive weekend:

“Long before the end, you will be tired, very tired – and that exhaustion is a part of the process. Do not forget to learn from what is happening to the player as well as the character…”

The character you bring to life in these mystery plays is what Dolores would have called a thought form. Sue’s, recent post, Lord of the Deep: Getting under the Skin touched on this process. When you realise how much power you can bring to such an occasion, you have a double responsibility on your head and in your heart. You must guard and guide the role… and your self playing it. Both are part of the emerging alchemy of intent and delivery.

So now we face a double danger. Gilgamesh charges through the labyrinthine passageways of the temple of Ishtar, not realising that he is in a magical place that is not subject to the laws he knows and can control. Clutched in his sweat-streaked right hand is Enkidu’s axe… He pursues a woman he thinks is his enemy – Shamhat. But this is not the high priestess but the goddess to whom the Temple of Ishtar is dedicated.

But now I must surrender to his presence and, literally, be there for him…

She is inhuman, this Shamhat who can outrun her King. As the passageways get darker, I know I am losing her in the endless triangles along which she flees… Surely, we must be near the very centre of the temple – the Holy of Holies. My feet slide on the warm stone and I arrest my movement facing one who stands before me, unafraid–so familiar and yet, other-worldly. The Bull of Heaven is like a man, but his face is masked in pure white, as though a pot has been thrown to demonstrate the perfection of the art…

He calls to me from across this chamber, “Gilgamesh, you have offended the Divine Council.”

I snarl back that I will cast his corpse down the narrow streets, so that the city orphans may gorge on it. My taunts seem to leave him unmoved. I would be disappointed if it were other than this…

I am about to tell him of the bravery of my brother, who died leading the fight against Humbaba, the tree-demon, but, as though knowing my thoughts he says, “You have slaughtered Hu-Wa-Wa, the watchman of the Cedar Forest.”

I raise my weapon. It is time to silence this half-animal fool. I will not have the memory of Enkidu besmirched. But the weight of the blow is wrong, and only then do I realise I am clutching an axe – Enkidu’s axe; the one with which he led the attack on the demon. My soul soars, knowing that Enkidu is somehow here with me, in the form of his fearsome weapon. A warrior knows how to tune his strike – learning in an instant how to make fine changes to its arc and balance. I have earned and defended my kingship…

The blow splits the head of the Bull of Heaven and he sinks to his knees. Not even granting him time to die, I cast away the dripping axe to rip off the pure, white mask he wears…

And die another death… Before me is the stricken and bloody face of my brother Enkidu. I have killed him with his own axe.

In death – again – I can see he was, indeed, my twin; that the word brother does not encompass the wholeness of my love for him.

But how have I twice caused his death? Only beneath the spires of Ishtar can I imagine that this has been arranged by the Fate Dancers to show me the pitiful place to which my will and desires have brought me. Sobbing, my life seems to spill out from eyes that have seen too much, the hot tears falling through my fingers and becoming lost in the old dust that covers the stone floor of the inner temple of Ishtar. It is a fitting picture of my life…

Unseen hands raise me, the Fate Dancers are directing my life more openly, now. With eyes than can cry no more I watch as I am placed at the left side of a portal. Disbelieving, I see that a ghostly Enkidu has been raised to stand at the portal’s right side. Like two statues unearthed from the ground, we stand, undead, as the Fates and their charges pass through this portal of inner learning to their blessings.

Only the ghostly Enkidu and the worthless Gilgamesh remain unblessed…

The temple Guardian looks at me with something like pity in his eyes, seeing my exhaustion… and his. The King’s fingers clutch at where his sword used to rest on the wide leather belt… But, for now, there is nothing.

Other parts in this series:

Part One> Part Two> Part Three> Part Four> (opens in a new tab)” href=”https://stevetanham.wordpress.com/2019/05/09/gilgamesh-descending-5/” target=”_blank”>Part five> (opens in a new tab)”>Part Six> This is Part Seven

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Lord of the Deep, the Silent Eye’s 2019 April workshop, was adapted from the Epic of Gilgamesh by Stuart France, and Sue Vincent.

This narrative is a personal journey through that ritual drama in the persona of King Gilgamesh.

Header image by Sue Vincent, © Copyright.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Gilgamesh descending (6)

Faces… If there is one thing upon which Gilgamesh would wager his life, it is that life is all about faces…

His own face now burns with a permanent redness; whether from anger or something deeper, he does not know. But it burns… and gets hotter with every passing encounter with the faces that fight to decry and destroy what he has achieved as king… and before that, as they would see if they gazed down from their indifferent heights and invested in understanding his noble life.

Once more, he clutches the jewel at his throat: the amulet taken from Enkidu’s dead body in the forest – the jewel bestowed on his lost brother by Ninsum, Gilgamesh’s half-goddess, half human mother.

He is becoming thin, he can feel it. There has been little sustenance of any nature in the past few days. Enkidu’s death has robbed him of all appetite. All he can do is to carry on…

With heavy tread, he returns to the city of Uruk – his city, though it now feels controlled by strangers – who do not wish him well. He tries to tell those who will listen that Enkidu is dead, that, though, together, they slew the dreadful demon Humbaba, his brother died like a hero, with their king, Gilgamesh, fighting to save him.

But, no-one is listening. He shuffles away, seeking the shadows. His bent and dirty form goes unrecognised as he hides from the people – choosing alleyways, where once he strode in splendour through the main streets.

He is surprised when he looks up and sees that his feet have brought him to the pillared front of the main temple – the home of the high priestess, Shamhat, his enemy… Everything in him curls inwards as her mocking voice calls to his ragged and dirty form. He sees her shape in the shadows, emerging to witness his disgrace. His greasy hand clutches his sword and raises it, but its power is absorbed by the temple and he sinks to his knees, screaming in frustration.

Then, from nowhere, the Fate Dancers encircle him and begin their dance; only this time, he is not in the King’s position – in the withdrawn east of the temple – he is in the centre of its pattern, his fate being spun like a toy in their cruel movements.

As their dance comes to a close – but before they withdraw – he sees two faces looking down at him from between the pillars of the Temple of Ishtar, but, when he blinks away the tears of rejection and sorrow, there is only one… Shamhat’s face shimmers as she gazes down on his…

“Rise and bed me, O mighty Gilgamesh. Give me of your luscious fruits,” she mocks. “Be my sweet man…”

The taunts burn him as nothing ever has before, though the words offer him everything he could have desired. His mouth fills with bile and he sputters his reply. His voice is a dull rasp. “In my pride you scorned me, yet now you offer yourself freely. Why do you mock me at this, my lowest estate?”

He sees it now. Shamhat’s motives are revealed. She will try to destroy the King in retaliation for the death of her lover, his brother, Enkidu…

With this anger, a wild energy at the heart of Gilgamesh returns to empower him and he leaps to his feet, shouting, “A curse of destruction on you and your temple of harlots”

Shamhat, her edges shining and twisting as though person and shadow have mixed, laughs and turns to enter the dark chambers of the temple. She disappears into the internal labyrinth of its passageways and Gilgamesh charges after her, blazing, as his fury consumes him… He does not see that the movements of the Fates have changed his sword into Enkidu’s axe.

Outside, in the brightly-lit city, the Fate Dancers are dancing, again.

Other parts in this series:

Part One> Part Two> Part Three> Part Four> (opens in a new tab)”>Part five> This is Part Six

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Lord of the Deep, the Silent Eye’s 2019 April workshop, was adapted from the Epic of Gilgamesh by Stuart France, and Sue Vincent.

This narrative is a personal journey through that ritual drama in the persona of Gilgamesh.

Header image by Sue Vincent, © Copyright.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.