Saturday, 30 May 2015

Science and mysticism - the genius of the Stone Age

The more insignificant modern man becomes - on his shrinking earth, hardly a cosmic speck - the more arrogant he is. He feels far less humility toward the ever-vaster unknown than his forefathers did toward what was thought to be known in a flat, God-ruled, man-centred universe. Science does not seem to touch man's emotions at all: he loses his religious awe and acquires in its place only a boastful complacency about himself. His intelligence grows, but not his genius.
- Philip Freund.

The photo shows a symbol carved into the stone at the very rear of the chamber of Cairn T, Loughcrew, Ireland. It was likely carved there more than 5,000 years ago, by a society of people for whom, I believe, science and spirituality were not considered as separate things. Indeed, I believe our ancient ancestors expressed their genius by grafting huge edifices in stone, lasting memorials to a time in the story of humanity when people had what Fruend refers to as "inventive mind, poetic aspiration, and awe-filled heart" - and yet they watched and measured the movements of the sun, moon and stars. They were, in my opinion, equally adherents to empiricism, metaphysics, philosophy and mysticism. They were farmers, engineers and astronomers, but they were most likely also poets, diviners and shamans, as suggested in mythology. They were both scientists and mystics.

I believe that they saw themselves as one with a cosmos that was vast beyond comprehension. They were neither athiest nor agnostic - but held a deep hope and belief in the existence of an afterlife. The great mounds of the New Stone Age are the best physical exemplifications of this belief. At the end of life, the burnt or unburnt fragments of the individual were lovingly and delicately placed in the chambers of these sacred spaces, from which, it could be implied from the construction and alignment of these monuments towards the rising and setting places of the heavenly bodies, the soul of the deceased was magically transported to the next realm.

The people who built the temples of stone that are Cairn T and its sisters on the ancient hills of Loughcrew, and indeed the vast monuments of the Boyne, which mark a zenith of that society, did so, I believe, in unity and zeal towards a shared belief. Joseph Campbell said that the "awakening of awe, that awakening of zeal" is what pulls people together.

In relation to the great cathedrals of Europe, Campbell said "you mustn't think of slave drivers; that isn't what built the cathedrals. It was a community seizure, a mythic zeal."

The same is probably true for the mound builders.

So what happened to the culture that dedicated itself to fervently building these innumerable mounds and cairns across ancient Ireland?

In the words of Campbell, "the zeal disappeared".

In my opinion - and it is just an opinion - our sense of the cosmic, and the awesome, and the everlasting, and the transcendental, became diminished when we became fascinated with the material, and the corporeal, the earthly, the ephemeral. When bronze arrived, and later iron, we perceived that we need not dream of otherworlds to give us power. We could fashion gleaming possessions - decorative and combative - and this gave us a sense of our own authority over nature. We could transform the murky raw materials of the earth magically into jewellery and weapons. We became alchemists, magicians. We no longer needed to divine our place in the cosmos and in the frantic and at times incongruous schemes of life. We could, we believed, impose our own will upon it. Spirit moved aside a little - or was pushed - and ego took centre stage. This conflict of spirit and ego is perhaps best epitomised in the battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann - the owners of the sídhe/mounds - and the Milesians, who came from Spain to take Ireland from them, driven by mixture of revenge and a jealous longing for a country that they beheld as being so beautiful it looked like the clouds of heaven.

Instead of the Dé Danann Elcmar, who stood on top of Newgrange at Samhain with a fork of white hazel, the archetypal mystic - a diviner, a druidic wise man - we became the Milesian Eremon, who wished to take ancient Tara and impose the domination of a new force upon the land. The symbol of that imposition would become the Lia Fáil - the phallic stone of kingship that would scream when the rightful king placed his foot upon it. And thus at Tara even today it is possible to discern the transformation that occurred after this battle between spirit and ego. The old ways are represented by Duma na nGiall - the Mound of the Hostages that rises out of the earth like a pregnant belly, the mother who is at once part of both world and cosmos. The new ways are represented by the Lia Fáil, the phallic stone placed there in an act of imposition, declaration, and perhaps banishment. We shouldn't be surprised to think that the Neolithic culture was a matriarchal one - its stone chambers are somewhat uterine in design - although we get the distinct sense of a polytheistic society when we take account of mythology which may or may not date to that remote time. But the cultures that followed - in the Bronze Age and Iron Age - created enclosures and ramparts encircling the sacred hill that I believe attempted to make a statement that - instead of considering the monuments to be an extension of the earth, saw the earth as being enclosed within a new system of ownership and dominance. We were no longer an emergence from cosmos. We were an imposition upon it.

The Lia Fáil - the phallus - is another icon of imposition, and the patriarchal nature of that imposition. We planted it there as a symbol of our wish to claim ownership, dominance and control over the land. We did similarly when we planted a flag on the moon. We went there at considerable expense in the greatest single achievement of our era, but we did so as much as as an act of imposition and ownership as we did as an act of scientific exploration or altruistic humanity. We want to own the moon.

To be continued . . .

© Anthony Murphy, 2015

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The writing continues. Always, the writing continues

As long as I can remember, I've been writing. While it's true that all children learn to write from a young age anyway, I think I developed a love for it from the moment I first picked up a pencil. Not content with handwriting as a means of putting words down on paper, I soon developed a love of typing. And all this before the arrival of the modern home computer. In those pre-computer days (it's difficult to believe how much has changed in the last three or four decades), I used my father's mechanical typewriter. That was difficult, because my skinny, youthful fingers did not have the strength to depress the keys, so I developed a two-fingered approach, banging away at the keys with my left and right forefingers. This might sound like a slow method of writing - slower perhaps even than handwriting - but I soon became quite proficient at two-finger typing.

My dad had one of these cool typewriters - the Olivetti
Valentine. It's what I learned to type on.
Years later, I still have some of the typed sheets from my childhood. I wrote about different things, but in my tender years, with my age still in single digits, I mostly wrote about the stars and the sky. Even then, I couldn't make up my mind whether I wanted to write fiction or non-fiction, so I wrote both. My first foray into the world of publishing came while I was about 11 years old. I started writing a column called 'Skywatch' for the Spectrum magazine, a monthly publication included with the Drogheda Independent newspaper, which was at that time edited by my father, Paul. He was editor of the Drogheda Independent from 1985 until the end of 2001. He is now 71 and still writing for a newspaper. Needless to say, when it came to writing, I didn't lick it up off a stone.

Eventually the computers came. The typewriters disappeared and a new revolution came. I began working as a reporter for the Drogheda Independent in 1994. The internet eventually arrived, and the personal computer also progressed in leaps and bounds. (Anyone remember Windows 3.1.1? Or the dreaded Windows 95?) The computer keyboards allowed me to develop a variant of touch typing. I started using more fingers to type. Consequently, because I was typing every day, I became quite adept. I learned to type without looking at the keyboard. Apparently in those days it was considered quite a skill. My kids now comment about it. "Dad, I can't believe you can type so fast without looking at the keyboard." I tell them that if they type often enough, they will eventually develop this skill. Who knows how many words I've written in my life so far? It has to be several millions. It could be several tens of millions. I really don't know.

Despite the fact that I have spent a lifetime writing - sometimes professionally, sometimes as a hobby, sometimes as an author - I am acutely aware that the transition from pen and paper (or typewriter and paper) to computer is not all positive. Despite our technological advances, we must admit that computer storage not a permanent medium. There are lots of articles online about this very fact. If you want to safeguard your writing, you should make sure to print everything you write. It's the same with photos. If you want to save them for future generations, make sure you get good prints made. Hard disk drives are prone to failure. Very prone. Storage media including CDs and DVDs have a finite lifespan. It's important to preserve your work - if indeed you or anyone around you deems it worthy of preservation.

A case in point is my first book, 'Island of the Setting Sun - In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers', which I wrote in conjunction with my good friend Richard Moore. I did all the writing, on an Acer laptop. Now I still have that laptop, but it stopped working a long time ago. The motherboard failed. I was able to rescue the hard drive, but even that has failed in the interim. Now, it's not a big crisis because the book was published. Thankfully. But my point is that, without a printed book or even a draft printed manuscript, the book that I laboured over for years would be lost to time.

Writing as I have done about ancient stone monuments like Newgrange, the thought has often struck me that perhaps the single best way to preserve writing so that it might potentially survive for centuries and millennia into the future is to carve it into stone!

In the autumn of 2014, I began writing my latest book - a novel. I was concerned about the fact that at the age of 40, I was perhaps letting time slip by too quickly without being productive as a writer. It's important that the writing continues. The writing must continue, always. Most of it will never see the light of day, and that's OK. So long as the art is being practiced. If even a small percentage of it gets published, that will be good enough.

I work in Dublin. I have to commute to and from Drogheda. I have a very busy life outside of work, what with my involvement in the brass band, in amateur radio, in photography and in so many other things, not least my young family. It wasn't practical for me to bring a laptop everywhere so that I could write in whatever spare time I could find. So I took a decision. I was going to bring a notebook with me at all times. This would serve two purposes.

A collection of some of the notebooks I've been using.
Firstly, it would allow me to write at times when it might not be otherwise practical to whip out a laptop and start typing away. So, for instance, I found myself writing on the way to work in my brother's car in the mornings. We car-pool, so he drives one day, and I drive the next. I could get several hundred words written on the morning commute. Then I wrote at lunchtime. Some days, I would sit in the car in the car park at work and scribble away to my heart's content. Sometimes, I could go up to the Grand Canal and sit on one of the locks and write away. Occasionally I would drive to the Phoenix Park at lunchtime and sit in the car up there, scrawling in my notebook.

The second purpose of the notebook, though, and a very important one, is to ensure that something of my writing survives in case none of it ever gets published. And not just my words, but my actual handwriting. If all the computers I ever use eventually break down, which they inevitably will, I will have to be very careful to ensure that everything I write on a computer is printed down and saved in multiple places. Having a notebook with my handwritten text in it is nicer than having any printout from a computer.

I've been more careful lately to select notebooks with a hard cover on them. For years I wrote on reporter's notebooks, those tall spiral notebooks with either 80 or 160 pages in them. But they get damaged over time. Since I started writing the novel last August, I've been buying hardback notebooks of different shapes and sizes and doing my best to keep up the habit of writing.

The novel is finished now. It's a short novel at 55,000 words, but it was written in small snatches of spare time in the mornings and at lunchtime and in the evenings. At night, when the kids were in bed, I would sit here on the computer and type all that day's writing into a document on the computer. I could do that relatively quickly, because I'm a fast typist. It was a win-win situation. I got to preserve the original handwritten novel in different notebooks, but I also had a manuscript on computer, which could be easily edited and styled for presentation to publishers. And the process of typing from my handwritten words enabled me to edit and proofread, another important step in helping to perfect the work.

I finished writing the new novel in the first week of January, but I have kept up the habit of writing ever since. I try to write every day. Sometimes it consists of nothing more than ramblings about the day - like a journal. But sometimes it's deep and meaningful. The important thing is that I'm doing what I was born to do, even if the only one who sees most of it is myself. It's a great habit to be in. I can truly say that I am a writer, even if I'm not yet making a living from it.

Today, I bought myself a nice B6-size softcover notebook with cream pages. It's like a moleskine notebook, but not as expensive. I wanted something nice to write on. I'm hoping it will encourage my next book to flow from the pen........