Perchance to Dream

dreams

Dreams, as we all know, are complicated. Sometimes they are pleasant, sometimes terrifying, but always they leave us with fleeting and fractured impressions of our sleeping subconscious after we wake from them. Interest in dreams goes back a long way into our human history; and throughout the ages there has been no shortage of authors putting quill to parchment for the purpose of exploring the dream-state more deeply.

Cicero, the great Roman orator and statesman, and consul of Rome in 63BC, is among the many who wrote about dreams. In fact, his Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio) became one of the most influential works on dreams for later medieval writers. Cicero’s story of the dream of Scipio Africanus – in which the subject’s grandfather appears to him and gives him insights into such heady topics as cosmology and the immortality of the soul – made such an impression on the early medieval writer, Macrobius, that he wrote a detailed commentary on Scipio’s dream, developing the elaboration into a classification method for dreams in general.

Macrobius’s method distinguished 5 types of dream. The first two types (nightmare and apparition) he declared as ‘insignificant’ because he believed them to be non-predictive/non-prophetic (and, therefore, of no practical use to one’s present or future life). Such dreams, he said, were brought about by day-time anxiety or stress or, in particular, over-indulgence in the wrong kind of food and drink.

The next three types in the classification, however, were of great significance:

  • The somnium or enigmatic dream in which strange shapes and symbols represent important meanings that must never be ignored but always carefully interpreted.
  • The visio or prophetic visionary dream which is a clear glimpse or insight into what is to come.
  • The oraculum in which someone of importance and/or great wisdom (from the past or present, dead or living) appears to the dreamer to impart information or advice.

Such credence was given to Macrobius that, in the later Middle Ages, a whole genre of dream-vision poetry developed with his classifications as the base and inspiration. Great medieval authors such as Chaucer (who not only wrote many dream-vision poems but actually mentions Macrobius’s Scipio in at least three of them) and Guillaume de Lorris (Romance of the Rose) were masters of the genre. Even Dante’s epic The Divine Comedy is a vision of the world beyond death.

Today, of course, most writers are cautious about employing the dream device but, for medieval authors, it was regarded as a skilful way of bringing together the worlds of reality and imagination. Then, too, the division between the material and the spiritual was much more fluid, less stringently applied than in our own matter-of-fact time. Now, the dream (and even sleep itself) has been down-graded to a distant second-place behind our ‘real lives of busyness’. There is little time to ponder our dreams when all waking moments are taken up by the bright screens of modern technology.

Something to think about as you fall asleep tonight … unless, of course, you’ve over-eaten beforehand!

Mind Your Langauge

dictionary

I love all the books (and there’s a lot of them) in my home library but the giant-sized Webster’s Dictionary (Unabridged) is one of my special favourites – all 3562 of its tiny-print pages. Each of its entries gives not only the current meaning of a word but also its origin and change/s in denotation and connotation over the centuries. Some words have flipped their meanings entirely. ‘Silly’, for example, now means ‘unwise, in want of understanding or common sense, foolish’; but the word originally came from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) sælig meaning ‘happy, good, blessed’. We can easily imagine that part of the reason that ‘silly’ took a dive from the positive into the negative was the rise of rationalism and scientific dominance over religion.

On the other hand, ‘pretty’ has experienced a lift in meaning. In the original Anglo-Saxon prættig meant crafty, sly, deceptive. Well, maybe we can fill in the gaps as to how the more familiar meaning of ‘pleasingly attractive, good-looking’ evolved.

But, the big Webster’s is getting old now and, while its 1932 publication date has allowed me to dip into it for invaluable insights about the origins and evolution of much of our English language, the vernacular is a very fluid thing. This is why the modern dictionary compilers are always adding, and sometimes subtracting, and often re-defining, words and their meanings. Just this year, Merriam Webster added such words as ‘truther’ – one who believes that the truth about something important is being hidden from the public and seeks to redress or expose the obstruction; and ‘photo bomb’ – someone moving deliberately into a photo shot as a joke or a prank.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added words like the double superlative ‘worstest’ to match its inclusion of ‘bestest’ in 2014. Other new entries in this year’s OED include ‘mankini’, ‘cyberbullying’, ‘sexting’ and ‘slow food’. There have also been changes and/or expansions in meaning for words like ‘friend’ which now takes in the Facebook variety of buddy. The word ‘follower’ has undergone a similar expansion – from old-style disciples to Twitter associations.

Now, is that pretty? Or is there something a little bit silly about that!

Mirror, Mirror!

mirror

We all remember the magic mirror belonging to the evil queen in the fairytale, Snow White. Each day the queen would position herself in front of the mirror and ask, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?” And the mirror would reply, “You are, O Queen.” The queen would be reassured for the moment, content in the mirror’s lie and its acquiescence to her vanity.

                Throughout history, the mirror has been one of the most prevalent and potent metaphors for the folly of human vanity. One of the foundational Western myths, for example, is the story of Narcissus who fell helplessly in love with himself when he discovered his reflection in a woodland pond. So taken was he with the beauty of his own image, he could not leave the pond and so died there.

Today we, too, seem to be obsessed with our own images. We wouldn’t think of leaving the house without first checking ourselves in the mirror. Lifts in buildings have mirrored walls so we can pass the time by looking at ourselves as we ascend or descend. There are mirror apps for our phones. And our mobile phones are the new mirrors, providing us with the instant ‘selfies’ that we can enhance (or delete) before sharing them with the world.  We spend countless billions on lotions and potions in attempts to beautify ourselves and to ward off the aging process. Beauty and youth are idealized and idolised in glossy magazines, on the big and small screen, and across social media. And the way to happiness is often touted as being as easy as a few deft swipes of the plastic surgeon’s knife. The idea is that we’re only as worthwhile as our outward appearance. If we don’t look good, we cannot be happy. In this way, the mirror is powerful because we allow it to have power.

And its power over humans started a long time ago. Archaeologists have found evidence of the earliest mirrors being simply polished surfaces of natural materials – rocks like obsidian, for example – which could reflect back an image, albeit a hazy one. With time, the crafting of metals – copper, silver, gold – gave the self-viewer a slightly clearer idea of him/herself but it was still a rudimentary reflection. The glass mirror – the closest ancestor of our contemporary mirrors – is recorded from Roman times but it was really during the Middle Ages that the quality of glass became good enough to return a clear reflection. Around that time, the manufacture of a much smoother glass enabled a relatively blur-free surface to be achieved and its reflective ability was increased by backing the glass with a metal such as gold leaf or a silver-mercury combination.

The medieval mirror par excellence was the work of Venetian glassmakers on the island of Murano. Their backing material of choice was kept secret for many decades but it was known to include mercury in the gilding process which, of course, made the final product ‘problematic’. Still, that didn’t dampen the general enthusiasm for mirrors (though, of course, their cost made them a luxury item for the wealthy only). After that, the reflective quality continued to improve over the centuries as production methods advanced the clarity of glass.

As far as the mirror was concerned, there was no looking back!

Author! Author!

venerableBede - Copy

I must confess that I’ve always had quite a bit of sympathy for the biblical ‘Doubting Thomas’.** It seems such a very human reaction to me to express incredulity at a man rising from the dead and to want to verify the event by reliance on one’s own senses. We doubt many things that we haven’t seen with our own eyes or perceived with our other senses. We are a society that demands proof as a matter of course. Business cannot function without written contracts; academic research builds on earlier (written) research results; the legal system insists on proof before a conviction can be recorded. We wouldn’t dream of taking a financial institution’s word as to our account balance – we must check the statement ourselves. MRIs and other technologically complex tests are necessary to probe and verify our illnesses. We cannot leave the country without a passport; nor can we be considered to even ‘exist’ without a birth certificate; and we’re only officially ‘dead’ when the Death Certificate is entered into the public record.

This wasn’t always the case. The Venerable Bede, for example, completed the writing of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731. Bede was born in Northumbria in about 673 AD. At the age of seven he was given by his parents into the care of the Benedictines at the monastery of Saint Peter in Wearmouth in north-east England. In 682, Bede was transferred to a joint-foundation at Jarrow and there he remained as a monk until his death in 735. In the Preface to his history, Bede assures his readers that they can trust in all that he has written because, he states, “I am not dependent on any one person, but on countless faithful witnesses who either know or remember the facts”. That is, for Bede, the authenticity of his history comes not only from earlier written accounts but also from a variety of trusted oral and traditional sources. It is Bede’s words, and the words of those he trusted, that are presented as the impeccable credentials on which the veracity of his work rests.

In the High Middle Ages, too, the importance of trusting the words (written and spoken) of others found full realisation in the writing practice of NOT being seen to be original and creative but, rather, of being regarded as giving due acknowledgment to those who had gone before, of building on the firm foundations of the insights and achievements of previous generations. Bernard of Chartres’ saying (often incorrectly attributed as having its origin with Isaac Newton – though Mr Newton certainly said those words too), “We are as dwarves on giants’ shoulders …” is emblematic of the time which gave us the word ‘author’ from the Latin ‘auctoritas’ meaning ‘authority’. That is not to suggest, of course, that the great medieval writers were not creative; in fact, authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Marie de France (more of these in later posts) turned narrative conventions upside down to give us stories that are as fresh and relevant today as they were at their time of composition. And nor is it to suggest that the writings of the past centuries were all ‘true’ and utterly ‘honest’ representations of people’s lives and thoughts. The art of Rhetoric has been around since at least the days of the Ancient Greeks and part of the ‘authority’ that was passed on from them to the Western authors of the early and later Middle Ages was the insight that words are slippery, and can exert influence, menace, confusion as well as relay information and inspiration. 

The situation is no different today. So, what to do? The doubt of Thomas, the trust of Bede, the creative slipperiness of Chaucer? As a writer I’m opting for the third option; but in my everyday life I’m taking the middle ground: open mind and open heart with the occasional pinch of scepticism.

 

**Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples said, “we have seen the Lord”, he answered, “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe” (John 20: 24-29).

Raising Specks to the Spectacular

Meister_der_Manessischen_Liederhandschrift_001

O the dignity of that small speck of human dust
Taken by the jewel of heavenly excellence

To raise us from the clay of earth to heaven’s height
                                        (Gertrude the Great 1256-1302)

Gertrude the Great was a nun and mystic in the great Benedictine abbey of Helfta in Saxony. There she was one of a group of medieval women who later came to be known as “the scholars of Helfta” because of their extraordinary writings and mystical experiences. Gertrude’s prayer brings together two paradoxical aspects of our human existence – our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and our dignity. Her lovely metaphor for each of us as “that small speck of human dust” is even more relevant today than it was when Gertrude composed her poem in the late 13th century.

Last time I checked, the world’s current population is around 7.5 billion people, and increasing at a rate of about 3 people per second. In the (population) scheme of things, a human individual is very insignificant indeed. And if that isn’t sobering enough, consider the fact that our Sun is only one of billions of stars in billions of galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is calculated to be greater than all the grains of sand on Earth. Our Milky Way galaxy alone has about 400 billion stars. In effect, we’re a speck on a speck (Earth) in a spectacularly vast universe.

The 14th century English woman, Julian of Norwich (another great mystic), was also given a view of Earth’s smallness and insignificance in one of her (what she termed ) “Revelations of Divine Love”. In her writings on those profound revelations she explains that she was shown “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand”. As she looked at it, she wondered what it could be and she was answered that “It is all that is made”. Julian admits that she was amazed that all of creation was so inconsequential and she was anxious about having the responsibility of holding it in her hand because she thought that “it might suddenly have fallen into nothingness because it was so little”. Julian’s anxiety was soothed when she was told that creation endures, and will continue to endure, because God loves it. It is a simple statement and yet it’s possibly the only answer that makes any sense to us: love endures.

We cannot hope to truly comprehend the vastness and complexity of our universe but we can understand, from our own everyday human experience, what it is to be loved and to love ourselves and others. Of course, to truly love others we must acknowledge their humanness – the positive and negative attributes of the personality, the annoying habits, the inconsistencies, the humour and kindness, the bad temper, the fears, the thoughtfulness, the failings as well as the successes. In our enduring love for others, we raise them up in our own estimation and, as a consequence, they are also raised in their own view  – from specks to spectacular. So, like Gertrude the Great, Joe Cocker was onto something in his song “Love Lifts us up Where We Belong”.

 

Interviewing Dr Hildegard

Hildegard_von_Bingen (2)

 

When, in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named Hildegard of Bingen a “Doctor of the Church”, he elevated her to such illustrious company as St Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and St Catherine of Siena.

Mind you, the bestowal of such an honour had taken a while, considering that Hildegard was born in the Rhineland in 1098. Fortunately her remarkable work – writings on her visionary experiences, natural science, music compositions, and a play – were preserved and find a ready audience to the present day. Her deep interest in the natural world, her visions of all creation as a vast “cosmic egg” and her beautiful and somewhat humble description of herself as “a feather on the breath of God” appeal to our modern sensibilities but not all of her work is quite so palatable and I sometimes wonder what sort of reception she’d get if she presented the same insights personally today, perhaps on TV. I explored this idea in one of my recent poems. (The words are mine but they’re based on Hildegard’s writings and ideas) …..

Interviewing Hildegard

“INTRO rolling … and you’re on Camera #3 in …. 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … on”

“Good evening everyone and welcome to this week’s “Interview”.  Tonight it’s my pleasure to talk with an extraordinary woman.  Visionary, author, playwright, composer, scientist, abbess, and the Catholic Church’s most recently recognised saint, let’s hear it for …  Hildegard of Bingen

(Tepid canned applause)

          “So Hildegard, you were born in the Rhineland in 1098. And, amazingly, you’re still around today.”

A small child, clever, precocious. The tenth of my family, I was tithed to God.

A frosty morning, the light pale through the woodland.

A bird on a low branch, piping piteously in the approaching Winter.

A gust, the bird is shaken, uplifts itself on startled wings, and lets a feather flutter downward.

It hovers in its descent, and I, breathing out a hoary breath, try to send it back,  skyward.

The breath and feather coalesce, and I am that breath, and I am that feather,

A feather on the breath of God.

Still morning, still frosty, I arrive at Jutta’s anchorhold,

And there I’m held gently for my education.

Do you see the young girl? Eager. Enraptured. The best of my class, I am betrothed to God.

And then, a crowded abbey, warm and welcoming, a female family home.

           “What do you recall of your life in the abbey?”

Darkness, holding its breath in expectation of Matins.

The moment comes, the prayer rises,

The darkness exhales in exultation, and is filled with light.

On the morning air, a bird expands its breath,

Spreads its wings

And rises in song, with my song, with our song

In praise of the earth from which it rises

And of the air in which it soars

And of God in whom it lives.

          “And your visions. What of them? You are often called a visionary, a seer.”

I am a seer, seared by God in the fiery furnace of far-seeing Love.

A burning pain, flashing specks of light before my eyes.

They hover in their ascent, and I, breathing out with painéd breath, try to expel them, skyward.

The fire and the pain coalesce

And God is the light,

And I am the phoenix,

God’s own phoenix, forged in fire,

Frightened, enlightened.

Engulfed.

           Hmmm. People enjoy your music today. Why do you think that is?”

There are heavenly harmonies  …

That charm the stars to dance,

That fill the flowers to bud,

That quicken wombs, and that raise men

To heights of wonder.

They stir the sun to redden,

And whip the wind

To quiver the trees, to shake the leaves,

To caress our faces so that we breathe in God.

           “Yes, this talk of trees reminds me that you do seem to have some strong         views on ecology. Can you share them with us?”

The universe, an egg, cosmic and vast,

Bright with fire, dark with shadows,

Fragile, full

Of God, full of creation.

Fire, water, air, ether, earth,

Hungry for the food and breath of Life.

Around us, and below us, all is green

And seething with food, with the Spirit’s life

For those who embrace and do not fear.

          “And you’re big on herbal remedies, too, I believe.”

The beauty of the cosmic-egg macrocosm is reflected in the tiny microcosms of the earth-egg.

An egg-earth garden, medicine for our soul.

A stone, full of celestial fire,

A stream, full of stormy clouds.

A branch, God’s arm; a fish, God’s son.

A woman, God’s mother.

An earthworm, lowly and   _________________________

          “Well, thanks, Hildegard, but that’s all we have time for tonight. If you’ve more to tell us, please leave your website details with the producer and we’ll be sure to direct our audience right there. Let’s give it up for Hildegard of Bingen.”

                (Tepid canned applause)

“And … credits rolling. We’re done.”

Heaven S(c)ent

distillingperfume

Fine perfume is, and always has been, a luxury item, its high price putting it out of reach of many people in poorer social circumstances. But, in the Middle Ages, perfume was not only an indicator of high social status but a necessity for anyone who could afford it.

The streets and winding laneways of medieval towns were awash with dirt and foul-smelling waste products (of the animal, vegetable, and human kind), the limited lighting in most houses was by means of tallow candles which smoked and gave off a rancid odour, and the tightly-packed and poorly ventilated houses were musty. Scented oils in the dwellings and/or on the person provided a welcome relief from the daily assault on the olfactory senses of all. And it was believed that sweet fragrances warded off malodorous evil spirits. The pomander ball – a sort of spherical vase or container, or sometimes a bag filled with fragrant herbs – enabled individuals to carry a pleasant smell around with them, dispelling bad smells and (it was thought) evil infections in their wake.

At that time, perfumes were prepared by infusing oils (usually almond or olive) with flowers such as rose, lavender and violet, or with other readily available plants like lemon, and herbs such as thyme and sage. Resins helped fix the scent and, later, when the process of distillation was perfected, the production of perfume became more widespread and of a more commercial concern, expanding access to this important item.

Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) gives some wonderful details of the processes involved in creating special perfumes while, at the same time, offering a disturbing story about the evocative and provocative powers of scents and the sense of smell. Not a read for the faint-hearted (you might need your pomander ball close-by!).

Lions, and Dragons and Beasts, Oh My!

lion_bestiary

In the Middle Ages, the understanding of the natural world was not based on scientific observation but on utility and moral applicability. This was particularly so for plants and animals: if they could be eaten (or could produce eggs, milk etc for human consumption) then they fitted into the scheme of things and were farmed or domesticated accordingly. However, many plants and animals defied ready explanation and represented, instead, a source of such wonder and (often) fear that their very existence could only be accommodated if they were regarded as serving a moral purpose. Enter the bestiary, a book that was a sort of compendium of beasts and animals, real and mythical, accompanied by a symbolic interpretation and a moral lesson, particular to each beast.

Although the bestiary had originated in the ancient world (with the volume known as Physiologus bringing together insights about animals from such authors as Aristotle and Herodotus), it was later Christian writers like Isidore of Seville and St Ambrose who gave the stories a moral and religious focus. Because the majority of the medieval populace was illiterate, the imparting of the Christian message in stories and allegories was an essential part of the Church’s teaching method. Nevertheless, the creatures presented in the medieval bestiaries were usually so exotic that their descriptions were often considered to be factual in many respects. Griffins, dragons, and unicorns featured along with lions and elephants.

Even in early times, the lion was considered to be the king of the beasts, and as such, generally is the first beast described in the bestiaries. Two types of lions are described: a timid lion which has a short body and curly hair (think, the Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz); and a fierce lion with a longer body and straight hair. Both types were understood to have three particular attributes: the practice of erasing their tracks with their tail; always sleeping with eyes open; and giving birth to dead cubs which the mother brings to life on the third day by breathing into them.

The Christian association of Jesus with the lion is relatively straightforward: the lion as King of the Beasts = Jesus Christ the King. (In this aspect, such writers as C.S. Lewis with his character Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be seen to be drawing directly on the medieval parallel). And the three attributes are similarly associated: the lion’s erasing of its tracks was representative of Jesus’s hidden divinity; its sleeping with eyes open represented Jesus’s (and all Christians) physical death to the world but spiritually alive and alert; and the lion cubs being brought to life after three days is, of course, allegorically standing for Jesus’s death and three days in his tomb before his resurrection.

The bestiaries’ lion could be injured by a scorpion but it was only serpents that could kill it. And supreme among the serpents was the dragon, with its strength in its tail and not its teeth. Its thrashing, coiling tail enabled it to kill any animal – even one as large as the elephant – by suffocation. Thus, the dragon stood for the Devil, with his ability to squeeze the (holy) breath of life out of souls, suffocating them with sin. Further, with his fiery breath, the dragon could make the air shine and so he would sometimes appear to be an angel of light, tricking and luring the unsuspecting to their spiritual demise.

The dragons of today’s literature (for children in particular) are generally quite placid, with their mythic quality overtaking their earlier ‘evil’ connotations. dragon
I have a harmless dragon, myself, in my garden.

 

(Well, I hope he’s harmless!).