The Soulful Sacrifice. 4.

One of my most impressive childhood memories is of the Vervet monkey cage at Mundawanga Park just south of Lusaka in Zambia. I was ten and we were having a family day out. The Vervets were all I can recall of that day. They had the biggest nobs you ever saw. And played with them constantly. As well as pinching my brother’s fruit pastilles. Straight from his pocket. Hermes would have been proud.

What were they up to? It clearly wasn’t proper monkey behaviour and come to think of it they all looked suitably embarrased whilst carrying on as though smitten with terminal viagra. After a while, about thirty years, I realised that they were chronically overcrowded and had resorted to an unusual stratagem to alleviate their situation.

Everyone knows that masturbation is a private thing not to be intruded upon or interrupted and so each Vervet had managed to augment his greatly diminished territory  with the psychological space derived from being deeply erotically involved with himself. No-one would be rude enough to broach such a sacred institution. Psychological space held them where physical territory had failed.

Without psychological space the Vervets would not have faired so well. They look comical and foolish maybe but they had also ensured a degree of going-on-being that worked more or less.

Such a neurotic solution is a kind of trade off, a kind of three steps forward and two steps back dance number in which all parties get to make it through to the end of the song without being stabbed in the neck.

which is always useful.

even if you look ridiculous.

Projecting our inner nobility out into the world, burdening some poor shmuck who can never live up to archetypal expectations, is a neurotic solution not unlike the Vervets. It alleviates the crush of personal responsibility and the trials of Individuation but everyone gets to behave strangely in the process.

”If we stop looking for persons to put in power, there will be no more jealousies among the people.” Lao Tzu

The gift of the inner king once we’ve stopped looking for persons to put in power, is psychological space, internal elbow room, the square foot house in the square inch field, a capacity to reflect and pay attention that is not tied to circumstance or the governance of outer kings.

So its a big mistake to go unseating them in a big show of gore and torch bearing because that is just more of the same enacted story, ”the king must die..

long live the king!”

What’s actually required is the kind of exchange we find in Greek mythology between Hermes and Apollo after Zeus has laughed off Hermes’ theft of Apollo’s cattle. Once Apollo understands that it is in Hermes’ nature to rob people of their collectivity, their herd-like nature, he stops being angry. Having endured and understood the significance of his loss there is a kind of flowering in the space between them,

”The cause of the blooming of all things, with your resonant lyre you command the axis of the heavens, Placing all in harmony, Tempering all the poles.”  Orphic hymn to Apollo

In turn, Apollo gives Hermes the golden Cadeuces, symbol of healing and of being  Zeus’ messenger.

This exchange of symbolic treasures between the two constitutes what I find  useful to think of as a ‘transitional gesture’. Life is never the same again. Something has opened up.

A man dreams that he is the impoverished heir of an old family castle. Reduced in circumstances, he now acts as a guide to the Crumbling Pile, his life a treadmill of repetition. Finally, he is seeing off the last coach trip of the day. He leans back, exhausted, against a wall which suddenly and shockingly collapses, to reveal a great hall within… indeed, upon which his castle has been built, a great hall full of golden beings who burst into song as he tumbles through, inconceivable harmonies, unimaginable symphony..

Hermes, ever one to prank the complacent, has tapped the wall with his Cadeuces and creates some perspective for our bored hero, inviting him across a threshold that brings with it a new interior that wants its own song to be sung.

”There is what I want to think and there is what wants to be thought.” Hiedeggar.

To be able to entertain the song that wants to be sung is to return to the peace, protection and confidence of natural law.. one that is renewed by the transitional gesture of sacrifice, the making of sacred gifts..

”Give me my mouth, I want to talk. My two hands cling like ancestors. My lips are red as ox blood. Give me raisin cakes and beer. Bless me with ancient dreams. Give me songs green as earth.” Giving a mouth to Osiris, Egyptian book of the Dead

The Gods hunger for symbolic gestures for the want of which they will settle for your children. The raisin cakes, or what have you, made with proptious intent, offered in quiet dignity, will do more than open up inner space. It will innoculate you against the compulsion to make unconscious sacrifices.

When blind Oedipus arrives at the sacred grove of Colonus he makes a ritual gesture to the Furies and says, ‘done the right way, an offering may save ten thousand.’ How is that possible? Because ritual life cuts across the collective knee jerk impulse to send its Youth to war for the sake of preserving god-kings beyond their tenure.

How laughable that our culture thinks of itself as so evolved whilst enduring continuous war. Its like Spartans boasting the equality of the sexes, whilst lording a brutal, deadly grip over slave populations ten times their number.

You could call it hypocricy but it’s actually a split, the intensification of Us-and-Them in place of I-and-Thou proliferates like plague once someone can be conned into being king for a day. The gods must be appeased for the priviledge and for want of raisin cakes and ox blood, paint their lips with sap from the Nation’s finest and gouge great holes in the land.

Sometimes transitional gestures happen by themselves. When they do, all that’s really required is to jump up and down about it. I was in a very remote region of Africa, in a crowded smoky hut with a dozen or so locals who hadn’t seen white folks before and to ease the tension someone produced homebrew which I clumsily spilt as soon as it was passed to me. The place erupted and for a moment I thought I was in serious trouble but it turned out that such a great offering to the ancestors meant many of them were present to sanction the occasion and so everyone was immediately friends despite the absence of shared language or culture..

or beer.

The idea of transitional objects is more familiar, typically the magical comforts of early childhood used to create both a separation and a bond, things that somehow constitutes both me and not-me, by which we condense I and thou from fusion with mother. The child’s bear, the special blanket, a twist of cloth imbued with protective significance create an experience of belonging-with and yet distinct-from, the uncannyness of a strange familiar that opens up ‘transitional space’,

”that space of experiencing between the inner and outer worlds, and contributed to by both, in which primary creativity exists and can develop.” D Winnicott 1951

the in-between that includes the sum of the parts.

”In this space, one finds the most authentic and creative aspects of our personal and communal existence, including artistic, scientific, and religious expression.” Laura Praglin

Transitional gesture, something that happens or is done to clear a sacred space, invites new possibility, evoking a response from the Unconscious.

”Look how the charm rests in the hands of Men. I must look at it. Its silence fills me up. It gives power to my hands, light to my feet. It fills my head with heat.” Giving charms to Osiris, Egyptian book of the Dead.

The usefullness of the transitional gesture in containing collective violence is demonstrated by the tradition of ‘counting coup’ among Plains Indians  in North America. This practice was a way of waging war on your neighbour without anyone getting killed, with the intention of gaining honour and prestige rather than horses…

though the horses were also good..

Each warrior carried a coup stick shaped much like a shepherds crook. If you could touch an enemy with it and get away unscathed your entire worldveiw and status would change forever. People would look at you different. You could wear an eagle’s feather in your hair and stories of your exploits would be told round the fire, the unfurling of sacralised space,

”leading to the whole area of mass inheritance and the accumulated culture of the last five to ten thousand years.” D. Winnicott.

You belong.

For as long as we have our kings on the outside and imbue them with the soul’s authority then transitional gestures will be concretised in the form of punitive executive orders and compulsive warfare that consumes its sacrificial victims no less than the obsidian knife.

Sacrifices have to be made in life. Both Hermes and Apollo part with their precious things, not least of all the notion of what constitutes justice.. If we do not make our own sacrifices in the form of relinquishing the fantasy that the ego runs anything in the Psyche larger than a stapler, or the insistence that life should be fair, then sacrifices will find their way into our lives by alternative means.

What cannot come in by the door must come in through the window.

In any One Moment…

Athelstan’s wood lies on the Welsh border with Herefordshire, a wild and remote region of the countryside. I was out walking. The track was dry and broad. It was a sunny afternoon in late August. The greenwood had just a hint of Autumn about it and the banks at the side of the path were in full flower.

Suddenly, a voice. It came from a point directly in front of me, a hand’s breadth from my face. It said,  ‘A hundred yards down the track on the left hand side there is a fox asleep underneath a tree.’

I was amazed. There was no-one around. I stopped and looked about, leaning heavily on my stick to compensate the sudden feeling of weakness in my legs.

Who had spoken? Where were they? I went over what was said. It had all been so soft, so quiet and yet so utterly matter of fact. The information was clear and undeniable.

I decided to see for myself whether it was true.

As you would..

I mean, if someone said they had a giant caught under a teacup you’d have a peek..

just to see

if you were going mad or not…

So I paced out a hundred yards. To my left a tall, thick bank covered with nettle, beech and old man’s beard. I dug my stick into the hedge, grabbed a branch and hauled myself up, parting the top of it with my free hand and peered over.

There, asleep beneath a pine tree, was a young fox.

I was so astonished. I just stood there, all tangled up in the hedge. Struggling to balance, looking down at the fox who gradually got to his feet and, without taking his eyes off me, slowly walked away.

I can’t say who was more surprised. The fox must have felt his spot was pretty safe and I suppose I had felt that not too much could intrude on my quiet stroll through the woods. We were both sorely mistaken. But what on earth had happened? I was frankly shocked.

I suppose I might have flattered myself with the fantasy that I had had some kind of ‘premonition’ or extra sensory perception of the event except for the fact that it was not my perception at all. The voice was decidedly ‘not me’. And why such a curious piece of information? Why not winning lottery numbers? Or the meaning of life? A really snappy title for my book or the name of my one true love?

‘A hundred yards down the track on the left hand side there is a fox asleep underneath a tree.’ It was all so impossible. I stumbled home in a daze.

In the months that followed I puzzled over the events of that afternoon endlessly. I couldn’t write. I could scarcely string a sentence together. The whole thing was sending shudders through my world.

The more I thought about it the less I knew, the greater seemed the Universe and everything in it. I spent more and more time wandering the hills, wondering and puzzling. I was smart. I could figure it out. But the more I tried the more I failed, the worse I felt, the more puzzled I seemed to become.

Then, one day, I was out walking my now habitual ten or fifteen miles when I passed a tiny country chapel set all alone against the foot of a low hill. It was Sunday. There was the sound of an organ and people’s voices. I was desperate for some human company and went in, sitting near the back. It was not particularly because I felt any spiritual impulse to do so. I just wanted a rest and the sense of other folk.

The pastor was speaking, a dull boring man with a droning voice. He went on and on. I didn’t mind. I was happy just to be sat down in company. Then he said, ‘and now I hand over to so-and-so…’ gesturing to the back of the building.

A great bear of a man stood up immediately behind me. He was so close I could smell him. I didn’t turn to look but I could sense his enormous presence.
I cannot remember a single word that he said. All I can recall is that his voice was a sweet fire, a gentle yet heartfelt outpouring of one who had been in the presence of the Mystery, one who had seen and known.

He was everything the pastor was not. His Being vibrated with energy and passion; yet it was all with a quiet sense of having renounced or surrendered himself to something that now inspired his honeyed song.

The service was over. I slipped out of the chapel without ever seeing his face. I was turned in on my own excitement. I had no more need to understand what had happened that day in Athelstan’s wood. The fact of it, the sheer wonder at it all was enough. The mystery was the message.

In the most playful and mischievous way the voice had said, ‘’I’m not here for you to figure out. Nor am I here to make your life easier. I’m just to be reckoned with or ignored at your peril!’’. I had responded like the pastor, all dried up and boring because I wanted something that I could understand, because I wanted the Unseen to be an object of my inflated consciousness. So I lived with the thin soup of wanting it all worked out which I needed to trade in favour of wonder.

The honey-fire giant showed me that being clever about such things is not just a poor substitute for the real thing. It is actually a form of not wanting to know; not wanting to be truly affected by the experience, keeping it all at the level of having an interesting anecdote rather than a transformative kernel of amazement.

I had  to renounce learning for longing, let myself wonder and be comforted by all the things I didn’t understand .


this essay is an excerpt from my new book on the Individuation process which you can order here……ot-off-the-press/