Cosmogonies of Imagination: Hildegard of Bingen and J.R.R. Tolkien

A dream came true for me recently, when I had the opportunity to co-present with my dissertation chair, Jacob Sherman, at the PCC retreat at Esalen Institute in late October. We spoke about the creation myths articulated by the 12th century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen and the 20th century fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, demonstrating some of the extraordinary parallels between their cosmogonies. Jake presents on Hildegard in the first half of the talk, while in the second half I retell Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, the creation myth he called The Music of the Ainur, before we open into a brief dialogue together.

We spoke in the darkness of Esalen’s dance dome, illuminated by medieval illustrations of Hildegard’s visions and contemporary paintings of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë created by the artist Anna Kulisz, as well as one painting done by Tolkien himself. Between our presentations we played one of Hildegard’s remarkable musical compositions, “Quia ergo femina,” performed by the Bay Area women’s choral group Vajra Voices (with whom I had the privilege to play the harp several years ago, when I was part of Cheryl Ann Fulton‘s medieval harp choir, Angelorum). This presentation was such a delight to give, not only because I was able to present with one of my teachers who has been such an inspiration to me, but also because I felt I was able to sink into a mode of storytelling which I greatly value and enjoy.

Cosmogonies of Imagination: Hildegard of Bingen and J.R.R. Tolkien

From the time we arrive on the scene, human beings have sought to understand our existence and the existence of all things through myth, symbol, ritual, and story. But where do our creation stories come from and how do they change? Are they the product of inspired individuals, the creation of entire communities, or something else? In order to try to get some traction on these questions, Jake and Becca will consider two extraordinary creation myths, one given by the 12th century visionary, prophetess, and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, the other by the 20th century philologist and fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite being separated by roughly eight centuries, both Hildegard and Tolkien produced creative cosmogonies that resonate remarkably with one another and remain peculiarly powerful today.

Many thanks to Chad Harris for filming, editing, and posting this recording.

10 Replies to “Cosmogonies of Imagination: Hildegard of Bingen and J.R.R. Tolkien”

  1. One of the most amazing ideas of Hildegard von Bingen is the vision of Viriditas: the „greening power of the Divine“, the Healing Green Force, the creative power and cosmic intelligence of life which can be witnessed in the gardens, forests, wherever the human being comes into contact with the spirit of nature, the „devic realm“… („O most honored Greening Force, You who roots in the Sun…“ 🙂 ) As someone who feels close and connected to the Sufi tradition, I see a resemblance to Khiḍr, „The Green One“, the hidden initiator of those who walk the mystical path (similar to the archetypal image of the Green Tara in Tibetan Buddism). Tom Cheetham calls Khidr „the Earth Angel“. I feel that his book „Green Man, Earth Angel: The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World“ could be of great interest to you.

    „Khidr is a divine-archetypal presence associated with many traditions including ancient folklore and alchemy.  He is often referred to as “the Verdant One,” the “Green Man,” the source of the “Water of Life” thus he is associated with the color green, nature and the Earth.  Corbin warns however that green must be understood, here, as the spiritual, liturgical color of Islam; and that green symbolizes the completion of the Sufic journey.  Green, most importantly, is the color of the supreme center, the ‘mystery of mysteries,” the “Muhammad of thy being.”  In this regard Khidr is said to have been the Hidden Master, the invisible guide of Moses.  As Tom Cheetham writes in his book All the World An Icon, “Having Khidr as a master gives the disciple a transcendent dimension.  It confers a ‘personal, direct, and immediate bond with the Godhead’ . . .  Each disciple becomes what Khidr is, the center of the world.“

    1. Yes, I completely agree that one of Hildegard’s most interesting and important ideas is that of Viriditas. Thank you for bringing forward all of these deep cross-cultural connections. I’m familiar with Tom Cheetham’s work and own the book you are referring to, but have yet to read it—so thank you for the nudge! These are all areas I am interested in exploring more deeply, and they have been calling ever louder of late.

      1. By the way. You are a very gifted story teller. Your presentation of Tolkien’s creation myth, the Music of the Ainur (Ainulindalë) awakened something in the innermost chamber of my heart. Something very secret and sacred and silent. It is so beautiful that it must be true, because beauty is the splendor of truth: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (―John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn)

        What are the spiritual roots of our present ecological crisis? We have forgotten that we belong to the Music of the Ainur. Our heart knows what our mind has forgotten…

  2. “She is so bright and glorious that you cannot look at her face or her garments for the splendor with which she shines. For she is terrible with the terror of the avenging lightning, and gentle with the goodness of the bright sun; and both her terror and her gentleness are incomprehensible to humans…. But she is with everyone and in everyone, and so beautiful is her secret that no person can know the sweetness with which she sustains people, and spares them in inscrutable mercy.”
    ― Hildegard von Bingen

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