Dear President Obama,
I am writing this letter to the man for whom I cast my vote three years ago, the man who sailed the ship of change with the power of the winds of hope. I am writing on behalf of those who voted for you, for the future generations whose right to well-being and even existence are in jeopardy, and most importantly, on behalf of the planet earth, which is our only home and the source of all our nourishment and capacity for survival. I hope the man who reads this now can receive these words, not just as a political official in the most powerful position on the planet, but as a human being gifted with the ability to courageously take the steps required to effect the deep, fundamental changes so desperately needed at this critical juncture.
Your time in office has been fraught with a disintegrating economy and fiscal crisis that cannot be mended by any unanimous solution between political parties. The corporate industrial economy which you are trying to revive is based primarily on the assumption of unlimited access to petroleum. As we passed peak oil in 2010, it has become rapidly clearer that an economy which relies on extracting a finite resource is ultimately terminal. The earth processes under which petroleum formed will never exist again, at least within the timescale of human economies. Currently every aspect of life in the United States is dependent on oil, from our electricity, to our transportation, communication, and food systems, to name just a few. Although it is known that the resource on which these systems depend is limited and non-renewable, there is currently little to no support for those few who attempt to create alternative modes of living. Any alternatives to the norm are usually labeled by mainstream media as utopian or unrealistic, yet these alternatives are addressing the far more unrealistic vision of an economy that will continue to thrive on a single resource whose end is in sight. The collapse and lack of recovery of the economy is a clear sign that the industrial system is dissolving, and to attempt to revive it without rewriting the foundations of the system is to assure certain failure.
To assume that only slight modifications to the current system will set it back on course will ultimately lead to such a severe collapse that no attempt at a recognizable recovery will be possible. A time will come when there will be no choice as to how the system will have to change, and any progress in that area will come at much higher cost both monetarily, and also in human life and well-being. Any worries now about the government deficit are incomparable to the deficit we are continually drawing from the earth. The earth is treated as merely the backdrop to human affairs, a supply of free resources which can be extracted from endlessly. Any part of the earth left untapped, from the last old-growth forests, to the freshwater aquifers, to the buried oil fields, is considered economically wasted. Ironically, the utilized resources which are not wasted are quickly turned to irreversible waste within the disposable consumer economy, left to sit in mountainous trash heaps to decompose into toxins, if they can decompose at all. The earth is richly abundant, but only if humans create limits for themselves to allow for its self-renewing processes to take place. If we do not form these limits we will ultimately encounter them by drowning in our own waste, if nothing else.
Over the course of Western history a primary driving ideal has been human progress, a betterment of the human condition through acquisition of knowledge, and wealth and possessions for a more leisurely existence. At the foundation of progress is the idea of unlimited growth, which seemed like a real possibility through colonial expansion and the European discovery of abundant landscapes. Yet, as industrialization has allowed the human population to double three and a half times in the last century, that population has also met the unarguable reality that this planet is finite. As such, the definition of progress has actually come to mean a severe degradation of the earth in exchange for abundant consumer products, and excessive profit in the pockets of transnational corporations. Monetary gain has become the top value in our society, allowing for limitless consumption of landscapes and the destruction of their intellectual, aesthetic, imaginative, and spiritual values.
The corporations which reap excessive wealth from the environment share little of the cost that comes from the destructive patterns of their production. The vast amounts of waste, much of it highly toxic, produced by corporate industry is not accounted for in their production costs. Indeed, the weight of that clean-up usually falls to public services, paid for by tax dollars. Meanwhile, corporations are not only exempt from taking the responsibility to clean up after themselves, they are not even required to contribute monetarily to that clean-up by paying taxes. What money they do contribute to government is solely for the purposes of securing their own interests to continue unlimited extraction of resources from the earth, no matter the harm it causes to the environment or wider human community. If corporations, which are not human beings, are given personhood and legal rights, then the same rights should be given to the rivers, forests, soils, and all other species of this earth who have an equal right to exist as humans. If humans can represent a corporation in court, humans should be able to represent the land in court as well.
One of the arguments on behalf of corporate business is that corporations provide jobs for millions of workers, allowing the population’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter to be met. Yet those basic needs cannot be met if the earth is mined and destroyed until it can no longer support human life, even at a level much lower than that enjoyed by many in first world countries today. The economic recession and high unemployment have shown that the way our economy has been functioning cannot provide enough employment as it is. A new economic structure is desperately needed, one that is aligned with the economy of the earth and is based on renewal and responsibility.
The dire need for jobs is evident, but providing immediate employment at the cost of the health and functioning of the environment will only cause far more severe unemployment in the future. Destroying the ecosystems on which human life and economy depend will ultimately destroy the economy, as it is already beginning to do. The debates over the Keystone Pipeline project are one such example, for not only is this project extracting a finite resource, it will pose great risks to the workers toiling in a toxic environment. The pipeline will permanently destroy vast amounts of land and water for a temporary gain, and the effects of extracting and using this oil will likely be the tipping point for the irreversible, catastrophic effects of climate change.
Fortunately, there are other ways to employ the U.S. population that can flourish sustainably into the indefinite future, if they are supported and encouraged. We desperately need solutions for aligning the human economy with the earth’s systems, and investing in the creativity of environmental entrepreneurs will provide growing employment into the future.
One key area which needs reformation, and which could provide far greater employment than it currently does, is in the field of agriculture. The industrial agriculture system, which relies heavily on petroleum, has shown itself to be far more expensive and less productive than once hoped. The chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the large machines suited only to monocultures, destroy the life-giving properties of soil and erode the topsoil until it can no longer support any crops.
A major disconnect lies between U.S. citizens and where their food is grown, food that is harvested primarily by immigrant workers who are rapidly being deported while crops rot unpicked in the fields. If the argument for deportation is that illegal immigrants take American jobs, why is it that the high percentage of unemployed U.S. citizens are not taking up the work of growing their food? The industrial system has stripped the dignity of the art of food production, as it has taken the dignity of many other forms of employment as well. One way to fundamentally change the disintegrating economy would be to restore the dignity and artistry of the most essential jobs that sustain human life.
The growing, preserving, packaging, transporting, and marketing of the current agricultural system is expensive and wasteful, as food must travel long distances to reach consumers’ mouths. By localizing the food economy most of these expenses would be cut, and dependence on oil for food production would decrease tremendously. Greater emphasis could be placed on the quality and variety of crops since they do not need to be engineered for transportation, which would ultimately lead to a far healthier population overall. Finally, with more U.S. citizens working with the land, the American people would have the opportunity to reconnect with the North American landscape in a way that would inspire a deeper care and respect for the earth.
The most immediate and disastrous consequence of our civilization’s addiction to oil is the exponentially increasing saturation of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Humans have become a force of nature changing the very chemistry of the planet in a few centuries, on a scale that previously took millions of years. It is this composition of our atmosphere that allowed for the emergence of life on this planet, and we are altering it faster than we can calculate its effects. While the predicted consequences of climate change appear to be taking place far more rapidly than the most pessimistic models once indicated, the U.S. government has disregarded this knowledge and has consistently taken no action in any international climate agreements. Although the U.S. has contributed most of any country to polluting and altering the planet’s climate, the government has chosen to put short-term economic gain, for the benefit of a few corporations, before the welfare of the human population, including its own citizens. Humanity has gained the power of a geologic force, but has not shouldered any of the responsibility that comes with such power.
The amount of money poured into defense spending against potential, and often self-generated, international threats will be as nothing compared to the cost of defending against the real and imminent threat of the retaliation of an abused earth. Ecosystems function in such a way that if any single species becomes too numerous and sets the system out of balance, the environment will no longer support the population until it dies back to a sustainable level. While humanity has managed to avoid such natural population suppression with our innovative technologies, it is those very technologies that are now triggering such a potential die-off on a global scale if immediate action is not taken.
The effects of climate change can already be observed worldwide, and the ultimate damage will be determined by whether the U.S. government can extricate itself from the pockets of greedy corporate lobbyists, and take a true leadership position against the greatest challenge to ever face the human species. Addressing climate change and the environmental crises will soon be beyond the disparities between political parties, and of far greater consequence than the outcome of the 2012 election, or any subsequent election. Whether you have one year or five in the most powerful position in the world, your actions in this moment will determine the course of the future for generations to come. If the U.S. takes the lead to responsibly address climate change, every country in the world will follow suit. If not, many other countries such as India and China, will choose not to either.
The darkest periods in history have proven to be the most creative, and you have been given the opportunity to bring about the fundamental change this planet so desperately needs if we are to survive. The pain of making the necessary changes now will be far less than the pain all of humanity and the earth will suffer if we sit idly by and do nothing. As a planetary community we will either all survive together, or the entire earth will die. The earth is an irreplaceable gift which will not exist in the same way ever again.
The geologian Thomas Berry, who dedicated his life to speaking on behalf of the earth and who was the inspiration for this letter, wrote: “While Earth’s resources are finite, what is not limited is our desire to understand, to appreciate, and to celebrate the Earth.” Your decisions while in office will determine the ability of the next generations, your daughters and all those who will come after, to live in the exquisitely beautiful, awe-inspiring, miraculously habitable earth community that you live in. This is the future that is at stake. Please handle it with wisdom.
Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.
Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006.
Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty- First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.
 Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 156.
 Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 156.
 Berry, The Great Work, 109.
 Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 29.
 Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 72
 Berry, The Great Work, 22.
 Berry, The Sacred Universe, 155.
 Ibid, 154.
 Berry, Evening Thoughts, 66.
 Berry, The Great Work, 62-63.
 Ibid, 111.
 Berry, Dream of the Earth, 66.
 Berry, The Great Work, 130.
 Berry, The Sacred Universe, 133.
 Berry, The Great Work, xi.
 Ibid, 60.
 Ibid, 113.
 Ibid, 134.
 Ibid, 139.
 Berry, Dream of the Earth, 64.
 Berry, The Great Work, 160.
 Berry, Evening Thoughts, 63.
 Ibid, 47.
 Berry, Dream of the Earth, 201.
 Ibid, 42.
 Ibid, 76.
 Berry, The Great Work, 9.
 Berry, Dream of the Earth, 159.
 Berry, The Sacred Universe, 175.
 Ibid, 132.
at the confluence
where you flow into me
and one breath
swirls between our lungs
– Drew Dellinger
Humanity needs a new cosmology. The Earth needs a new poetry. As humanity’s discordant relationship with our home planet continues to wreak environmental devastation worldwide, no single solution can be put forward that can fully address the crises escalating on the Earth. The most creative answers will come to no avail if they are still trapped within the current mechanistic, reductionist worldview that initially set us so deeply out of balance. How are we, as a species, to address the issues of ecological destruction? The solutions require a creativity deeper and greater than the human alone. We must ask the Earth. As Thomas Berry puts it “…we need not a human answer to an Earth problem, but an Earth answer to an Earth problem.”
The chasm of communication between the modern human and the Earth is great, but not unbridgeable. David Abram posits that our human language is a gift originally from the Earth. “What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate, expressive world––as a stuttering reply not to just others of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?” This understanding of language as initially born out of the cosmos cannot be relegated to mere projection; the Earth calls forth the human imagination in diverse ways dependent upon the characteristics of the landscape. Language transcends human creativity alone.
The key imaginative language, the Rosetta stone of reconnection, must be poetic. The cosmos speaks directly to us, telling the story of its unfolding since time began, in the language of poetry. Earth poetry calls to us in the sighing death rattle of an autumn breeze among fiery-hued leaves; it radiates as the rich heat of black humus soil under the exposed skin of curious feet; it cries as the sonorous whale’s melody born through the crashing of a salty ocean wave. While many modern adults have long been closed off to this language, it is naturally available to children as they enter the world with fresh, enchanted senses: they can still read nature’s stories. The Earth has an inherent poetic quality to it, as its nature is “…bound into the aesthetic experience, into poetry, art, and dance,” as Berry notes. Our first task is to listen, an offering of the greatest act of love and respect to the Earth.
For humanity to once again hear the poetry of the Earth, the cosmos must be reenchanted. An innovative mythic worldview is needed in which humans understand their roles within the larger Earth and cosmic community. We need a “…vision of a planet integral with itself throughout its spatial extent and its evolutionary sequence… if we are to have the psychic power to undergo the psychic and social transformations that are being demanded of us.” Berry puts forth in his writings a call to the poets and artists of the world to help forge a new, mythically imbued cosmology that could culturally guide humanity’s survival into the future. “There must be a mystique of the rain if we are ever to restore the purity of the rainfall.”
In his book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, David Abram explores in poetic language these themes of reconnection and identification between the human and our Earth community. Drawing on his own rich sensory experience of the Earth, he is able to perceive the stories the planet is sharing with all of us. In complementary juxtaposition, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s new cosmology, as presented in The Universe Story, also offers a meaningful, enchanted vision retold from the perspective of scientific inquiry. Both Abram’s, and Swimme and Berry’s, cosmologies present a new mythological story based on an understanding of the Earth, not as an object, but rather as an ensouled subject.
Scientific inquiry has been the driving force impelling contemporary Western culture forward. The objective stance of the scientist has unveiled vast expanses of knowledge previously unavailable to humanity. Yet this objectivity has also masked a myriad of other knowledges, deep wisdoms and mysteries that scientific impartiality cannot perceive. Such a detached position has led to a belief that the evolution of the cosmos, from its first moments of flaring into being, is a sequence of random happenstance, somehow arriving at life and the epiphenomenon of consciousness upon our well-situated, but insignificant, planet. While the scientific method has revealed much that could not be disclosed by our physical or intuitive senses alone, the abstractions it produces have also taken the position of primary truth; “… as a result, more and more of us come to assume that those theoretical realms are more true, more fundamental, more real than this palpable world that we experience with our breathing bodies.” Yet, it may actually be such that these scientific results are best understood when interpreted through our senses and emotions, illuminating the greater depths of scientific facts.
Swimme and Berry tell the scientifically grounded story of the evolution of the cosmos from a sensual, mythic perspective, unfolding the same science in a lyrical, poetic form that reveals those very qualities within cosmogenesis itself. From the “primordial flaring forth,” to the birth of stars, the formation of the galaxies, and the supernovas that forged the elements which seeded new stars and the planets, to the emergence of life on Earth, the complexification of life, and the evolution and cultural development of the human, this story is expressed as a celebratory event. The unfolding of the universe is the celebratory event, for “…celebration is omnipresent, not simply in the individual modes of its expression but in the grandeur of the entire cosmic process.” Each phase of the journey expresses the inherent subjectivity of each event, a thrilling sensuality contained within every fiber of the cosmos.
The Earthly cosmology of David Abram is first grounded in the intimacy of the senses, then moves out to encompass the tangible qualities of the land, the Earth, and finally the cosmos. Swimme and Berry begin at the macrocosmic level, while Abram begins at the microcosmic, yet their two cosmologies ultimately meet in the middle, revealing one story of cosmogenesis and the intimate experience of it in the present moment.
The Earth can be communed with in part by understanding our human similarity to the myriad of living and non-living beings surrounding us.
We can feel the trees and the rocks underfoot, because we are not so unlike them, because we have our own forking limbs and our own mineral composition… are tangible bodies of thickness and weight, and so have a great deal in common with the palpable things that we encounter.
An intimacy inherently exists between all beings in the cosmos, as we each have our origin in the first ecstatic moments of the universe’s flaring forth. This relationship has continued through all time, forming the complex webs of interconnection and symbiosis that make life on Earth possible. Our bodies, like the other bodies in the environment, all partake in the gift economy of the Earth: one organism’s waste is transformed into the nourishment of another. Currently, humanity has become an imbalance in this economy, taking much but returning sterile, or even toxic, waste that is of little use, and causes great harm, to the other organisms inhabiting the planet.
A common perception is that humans live on the Earth, but rather we are deeply embedded in ways our bodily senses are able to reveal to us. Take a breath of air. The air swirling around us, connecting the entire planet in its cycles, extends for miles from the surface of the land and the oceans. We live deep within the Earth because we stand below the layer of air which allows Earth to be what it is. Moreover, the composition of that air, so essential to life’s existence, also would not exist without the presence of life. Life and air mutually create each other. “To put it starkly, the biosphere is not simply in a habitable zone but also makes a habitable zone.” Furthermore, not only are we in the Earth, but the Earth is in us. From the air we breath, to the food we eat, and the water we drink, the Earth itself courses through our bodies, just as we make our course through the well-worn pathways of life on this planet.
Physical nourishment is not the only gift the Earth gives its inhabitants. As mentioned previously, language may be a property of the Earth itself, as well as emotion, imagination, and reflection. If the human has psychic capacities then such ability must lie first within the cosmos, and therefore the Earth. Consciousness, rather than an activity occurring solely within the human brain, may be an inherent quality of the Earth in which we each participate.
What if there is, yes, a quality of inwardness to the mind, not because the mind is located inside us (inside our body or brain), but because we are situated, bodily, inside it––because our lives and our thoughts unfold in the depths of a mind that is not really ours, but is rather the Earth’s? What if like the hunkered owl, and the spruce bending above it, and the beetle staggering from needle to needle on that branch, we all partake of the wide intelligence of the world––because we’re materially participant, with our actions and our passions, in the broad psyche of this sphere?
Just as we inhale the air, we intake conscious awareness. Most importantly, from this perspective, humans are not the only beings inhaling the psyche of the planet, but rather every living and non-living entity partakes in this consciousness, each in their own diversified manner.
Like the landscape, the consciousness of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region, affording various insights and ideas to the imagination that differ by location.
There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.
The human imagination, and its ability for creative insight and innovation, is sustained by this diversity of the landscape and the myriad of beings living within it. Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on the creativity gifted by the Earth. If that gift is diminished, by species extinction and landscape destruction, our capacity to be fully human is also curtailed.
Enclosed in human-made cities and artificial environments, we will lose the capacity to think, dream, and create. The desire to forge a mutually-enhancing relationship with the Earth community is sustained by constant contact with the land, the ocean, forests, deserts, rivers, mountains, and the multitude of species living in these landscapes. If one is insulated from the array of life forces, then one’s desire to intimately know and respect them will dwindle and die. Such isolation leads to destruction for both the human and non-human, since something fundamental to the development of the cosmos is being constrained. As human creativity is stifled, the capacity to imagine solutions to environmental devastation is limited, unleashing a positive feedback loop that furthers ecological ruin and decreases awareness.
If humans treat the Earth and its multitude of abundant life as inert objects, then their inherent subjectivity becomes veiled, and even violated. The opportunity to commune with another ensouled being is lost. As Abram writes,
When I talk of the aspen or the granite outcrop as a determinate object, I push into unconsciousness my direct experience of trees and rock ledges, contradicting my carnal awareness of them as ambiguous beings with their own enigmatic ways of influencing the space around them, and of influencing me.
When we objectify the world in a merely instrumental way we deny ourselves even the possibility to encounter it as a meaningful subject. Once we choose to no longer speak to the Earth, to sing to the sunrise or hum to the cradling arms of an oak, to whisper to a chipmunk or call to a robin, then they will no longer speak to us, either. Even if they do, we will have lost our ability to hear them.
To open up such communication is to take a risk, stepping out of the stability of our everyday human interactions and into what is initially an utterly foreign language. Yet what is most key in all communication, whether between human, animal, plant, river, or soil, is honesty. The words do not have to be directly translated because the intonation and body language, that which all universe beings share, will carry the message, if we can surrender to trust it. Abram writes that he learned to sing when confronting an animal which he had startled, and which might potentially be dangerous if it felt threatened. The song was both relaxing to his own tensed nerves, and communicated that sense of safety to the animal before him. In another situation, when faced with hundreds of curious but angry sea lions, Abram began to dance, offering the sea lions a gift of his humanity portrayed through the animal expression of his body. Mesmerized by his movement, the sea lions were calmed from their initial fury at unexpected intrusion.
Such communication can be opened between humans and plants as well, although on a subtler level due to the greater genetic difference between the two biological kingdoms. Yet the doorway can be opened once again by finding the similarities, rather than focusing on differences, between the plant and the human. If one stands in a forest and listens attentively to the sound of wind through the tree branches, different dialects can be discerned between tree species, and even individual trees. While some might argue that this is not the trees speaking, but merely the wind passing through their branches, then we must be humbled to realize that the same thing is occurring with our own voices when we speak or sing. It is the air vibrating our vocal cords, just as that same air is vibrating the trees’ leaves and branches. Furthermore, it is that same air that is cycling around the planet, uniting the globe as a single being.
The cycling of carbon dioxide around the globe takes approximately a year to complete. In that time each molecule we breathe is circled to distant lands that we may never see with our own eyes. Yet our breath, which has shaped our speech and kept us alive, is distributed worldwide. It has been calculated that every growing leaf on the Earth, within a year, will contain a few dozen of the carbon atoms we exhale in every breath. The words we say, the poetry we speak, are crystallized within every leaf on the planet. We are listened to in a way almost impossible to imagine, indicating the power of our communication. We need to “…take deeper care with our speaking, mindful that our sounds may carry more than merely human meaning and resonance.” There is an “…uncanny power that lives in our spoken phrases to touch and sometimes transform the tenor of the world’s unfolding.”
Children are born into the world with this ability to whole-heartedly commune with the natural world. Indeed, for the very young child there is no separation between her sense of self and her surroundings. It is only with a growing awareness of her body that the child is able to perceive a quality of otherness in her environment. Yet, by emerging slowly from this embedded matrix, she is still able to communicate with the Earth, holding a fascination and sense of awe for all she encounters. Berry believed these encounters are essential for children, “… for it is from the stars, the planets, and the moon in the heavens as well as from the flowers, birds, forests, and woodland creatures of Earth that some of their most profound inner experiences originate.” A child who is able to interact with, and explore fully, the Earth community of which she is a part will be able to grow into an adult with an understanding of her place in the universe, and a vision of the interconnected web that is the Earth, her home. “Only after such an unimpeded childhood does a grown woman know in her bones that she inhabits a breathing cosmos, that her life is embedded in a wild community of dynamically intertwined and yet weirdly different lives.” It is just such an individual who will be open to the poetic communication of the universe, who will participate in its imagination and creativity to devise a mutually-enhancing relationship between the human and the Earth.
It is easy for the rational mind to dismiss the whispered stories of trees and the radiant breathing of the moon as projections of the human mind. No great truth is truth if it cannot be contradicted in some way. A sense of trust must be built between the isolated human and her environment. As that bridge is formed, what first seemed to be arrogant projection is really a deep perception. We are perceiving the similarities that draw connection between the human and the Earth, only to realize they are one and the same: “…our manner of understanding and conceptualizing our various ‘interior’ moods was originally borrowed from the moody, capricious Earth itself.” The human experience of emotions and consciousness are only qualities of the human because they are first qualities of the Earth, and prior to that the cosmos.
Two hundred million years ago, the first mammals flourished into existence as the next stage of the planet’s unfolding. Mammals developed an emotional sensitivity to the cosmos, impressing upon them the wonder and awe of the universe in a new way. It was out of the mammalian line that humans evolved, perceiving the great mysteries of the deep world as the archetypal, enchanted patterning of myth. In the opening to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes: “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.” These inexhaustible cosmic energies may be the very same energies creating the consciousness of the Earth, in which we all participate.
Myths are the underlying stories that subtly guide the course of a culture’s manifestation. To discover a new myth to guide Western culture, and ultimately the planetary culture, toward a harmonious relationship with the Earth, the dialogue must be opened between humanity and the local landscape in which each human being finds herself. Each landscape inspires different emotions, ideas, and stories, causing the universal, archetypal energies coursing through Earth’s consciousness to take diverse, concrete form in different localities. “For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.” Myth, like air or water, is a global, or universal, phenomenon saturated with the qualities of the local, as can be perceived when the local landscape is communed with.
The cultures living in the greatest harmony with the Earth are the indigenous oral cultures spread across the planet. Although each indigenous culture is as radically varied as the landscape in which they live, certain similarities connect their ways of life. Primarily, an oral culture is inherently local, grounded in the region in which they have culturally developed. It seems to be no coincidence that at the same time that the Earth’s ecosystems are unraveling, the planet’s indigenous cultures and their array of languages are also rapidly facing extinction. The diverse languages of the Earth are bound up into the land, and as the land is lost so are its poetic expressions.
The cultures that are causing the greatest environmental destruction carry a noble lineage of writings on religion, spirituality, philosophy, science, poetry, and story that are grounded in a deep reverence, care, and understanding of the Earth. These writings are easily available to nearly everyone in these cultures, yet the demolition of the natural world continues. Abram came to the realization that such a disconnect occurs because these ideas and stories are written down, “effectively divorcing these many teachings from the living land that once held and embodied these teachings.” Without the rich qualities of the landscape engaging every physical sense, these stories lose their sensual depth and cannot impart the full wisdom of the land which inspired them. Only if experienced in the landscape which first spoke the stories can the tales fully convey their meaning.
“Can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local Earth? Not without restorying the local Earth.” As the consequences of the ecological crises become dire, the importance of learning to hear the innumerable voices of the Earth becomes critical. Each voice in every region is telling a unique facet of the universe’s unfolding, which must be heard and retold, inspiring the creativity to find a mutually-enhancing, self-renewing, sustainable path into the future. The true myth of the universe’s journey, from the eternal unfolding of the primordial flaring forth, to the ever-fleeting present moment, must be spoken as story, as the great myth of our time. This story must carry the voices of all the local inhabitants so that new relationships can be formed between them and each new generation of the human being. Children should be able to carry their wonder of the natural world into their adulthood in a mature, reverent form.
“We know of no other place in the universe with such gorgeous self-expression as exists on Earth.” Humans participate in that self-expression through our own creative self-expression: through our myths and stories, our music, writings and art, our innovation and traditions, and our conscious participatory way of being. It is through these expressive gifts that humanity will be able to step fully into its niche in the Earth community.
The new myths we will tell each other will express a tale of renewal, rejuvenation, and reconnection. The ancient cosmologies of the world were based in celebration of seasonal renewal, the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. The new story of the universe honors the irreversible changes unfurling in the course of the evolution of the cosmos. The sharing of that story brings about a reconnection between humanity and the cosmos, in itself a form of renewal. The mythology of the future is spiralic, a celebratory tale of transformation within the cycles of a living, breathing cosmos. The myth is like the Earth itself, continuously circling the sun while simultaneously hurtling forward on an unknown journey across cosmic time and space.
Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010.
Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988.
Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.
Crist, Eileen and H. Bruce Rinker, ed. Gaia in Turmoil. Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010.
Dellinger, Drew. Love Letter to the Milky Way. Mill Valley, CA: Planetize the Movement Press, 2010.
Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.
 Credit for this title must be given to Matthew David Segall, who created the phrase at Esalen Institute in conversation with poet Drew Dellinger, regarding Dellinger’s poem “Planetize the Movement.”
 Drew Dellinger, “Hymn to the Sacred Body of the Universe,” in Love Letter to the Milky Way (Mill Valley, CA: Planetize the Movement Press, 2010), 30.
 Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 35.
 David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 4.
 Abram, Becoming Animal, 32.
 Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 15.
 Ibid, 17.
 Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 21.
 Ibid, 42.
 Ibid, 33.
 Abram, Becoming Animal, 73.
 Ibid, 75.
 Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 17.
 Ibid, 264.
 Abram, Becoming Animal, 46.
 Ibid, 62.
 Tyler Volk, “How the Biosphere Works,” in Gaia in Turmoil, ed. Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010), 30.
 Abram, Becoming Animal, 99.
 Ibid, 101.
 Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker, “One Grand Organic Whole,” in Gaia in Turmoil, ed. Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010), 4.
 Ibid, 16-17.
 Abram, Becoming Animal, 123.
 Ibid, 118.
 Ibid, 128-129.
 Ibid, 63-64.
 Ibid, 175.
 Ibid, 169.
 Ibid, 161-162.
 Ibid, 164-165.
 Ibid, 171.
 Volk, “How the Biosphere Works,” 30.
 Abram, Becoming Animal, 172-173.
 Ibid, 173.
 Ibid, 38.
 Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 133.
 Abram, Becoming Animal, 42.
 Ibid, 153.
 Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story, 10.
 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 1.
 Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1-2.
 Abram, Becoming Animal, 268.
 Ibid, 265.
 Ibid, 281.
 Ibid, 289.
 Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story, 263.
Understanding the relationship between the natural world, the human, and the Divine has been a driving inquiry of both Western philosophy and religion from the ancient Hellenic and Hebrew eras to the present. Such fundamental questions seem to pervade human thought, as each new generation grows up with a desire to discern their purpose for living, the nature of the world, and how both came to be. At our current crucial moment in history, in which much of humanity’s devastation of Earth has led the planet to the brink of irreversible crisis, such questions of the historical understanding of the relationship of the Divine to the world could be essential to moving forward in a sustainable manner.
In the opening chapter of The Participatory Turn, Jacob Sherman lays out three major shifts in the philosophy of divine participation with humanity and the world. Each of these participatory turns, which occurred during the course of the last two millennia, were informed by the previous understanding of participation and seeded the development of the subsequent concepts. The three turns are the formal participation of Plato, the existential participation of Thomas Aquinas, and the creative participation of Friedrich Schelling. Threads of each philosophy have been carried forward to the present moment, and can provide a basis for understanding the relationship between the Divine and the natural world in light of the ecological crisis.
The concept of participation in philosophy began with Plato, who used the term methexis to describe the relationship between the realm of eternal Forms, or Ideas, and the realm of incarnate things. Neither of these realms exist independently from the other, nor are they identical. Rather, the realm of divine Ideas informs each incarnated thing, and each of those things partakes in the Forms that give them being. According to Plato, the incarnated beings are able to participate in the Forms because they are recalled, by means of anamnesis or recollection, from prenatal experience. For example, an oak tree incarnates as an acorn, and as it matures it recalls the Form of Oak Tree, in which it participates, from its prenatal experience of the realm of Forms.
In Plato’s conception of participation the world is infused with gods, the Divine saturating the world of becoming. The realm that knits the Forms and the manifest world together into reality is the realm of metaxy, in which daemons carry prayers and blessings between mortals and gods. One such daimon is Eros: love, therefore, is one of the beings that weaves divinity into the material world. Plato aims “to secure the value of the world of becoming by exposing it to the contagion of the Good.” As pertains to much of contemporary humanity’s current relationship with nature, such an understanding of the divine presence informing the world provides an ancient argument for reverence towards the Earth.
The existential participatory turn was put forward by Thomas Aquinas from more of a religious stance than a philosophical one. While Plato addressed the question of what a being is, Thomas takes up the inquiry of why that being exists. Thomas recognized creation as a gift bestowed by God, which also holds implications for a historical study of reverence for the Earth. If the natural world is mistreated or destroyed it is a form of irreverence for the generosity of God. For Thomas, “Creation does not describe a transformation as if from one state to another, but rather a radical relationality, a state of dependence upon the divine.” He calls this relationship causal participation, for the Divine is causing a being to exist. This existence does not belong to the created being, but rather is the imparted gift received from the Divine and is ultimately within the keeping of the Divine. “As the principle of all participated beings, God overflows, even exteriorizes Godself in the generous diffusion that makes creation possible.” Existence is the limited potency of an Infinite Act of God.
One can see the shift in perception of the nature of the Divine from the Platonic to the Medieval Christian era. For Plato the idea of infinity indicated chaos. Therefore, to be perfect, the Divine must be bounded and limited. As Hellenic thought was exposed to Hebraic consciousness and the mystery religions in Alexandria, Neoplatonism developed and with it a new conception of the Divine as infinite. This co-mingling of ideas was carried through Christianity to the time of Thomas Aquinas; it informed his understanding of existence as the infinity of God gifted as a limited potential in mortal beings. As regards the current environmental movement, such a vision of divine existence within a limited creation indicates the sacrality of the natural world, as well as a realization that this world is finite. It calls for respect and preservation, to revere the Divine and conserve its material presence.
Neither the account of participation in Plato nor in Thomas accounts for the creative agency of the human being. This conception of creativity did not exist in the ancient world, as the ability to create was considered the property of the Divine alone. However, as this concept of creativity progressed through history, it instigated the third participatory turn. Human creativity is a form of participation in God’s creativity, but while humans are finitely creative, the Divine remains infinitely creative.
As an understanding of human creativity developed with modernity, the clear distinction between the Divine and the created world began to blur. Benedict de Spinoza developed a pantheistic description of the world which obliterates any boundary between the divine and mortal realms. According to Spinoza, God and nature are one and the same. This expressivist philosophy is no longer participatory, as there can be no relationality between realms. It does, however, plant the seeds for the third participatory turn. “Spinoza, therefore, finds creativity everywhere; every creature participates in creativity and has the power of expression because every creature is God expressing Godself.”
Not only does pantheism do away with participation, it also negates any reason for moral responsibility. If every act is a creative expression of God, then acts of harm or evil can no longer be distinguished from acts of goodness. In regards to acts of environmental devastation, there is no difference between clear-cutting an old-growth forest and protecting endangered species. Both are acts of God, and therefore neither one morally outweighs the other.
The third participatory turn, the creative turn of Schelling, emerges from the lineage of Plato and Thomas Aquinas, and is partially in response to Spinoza’s pantheism. Schelling’s panentheistic view is related to Thomas’ vision of existence as a gift from the Divine, which is an externalizing of God from Godself. Panentheism, instead of equating God with nature, sees God both within nature and transcending nature. Schelling also accounts for the creativity of humans, taking humanity from the level of puppets animated by divine existence to that of creative agents expressing God’s infinite creativity. “Schelling sees everything, humans and nature alike, as alive and creative through their relationship to a living, creative divinity.”
According to Schelling, there is a complexity within God that allows God not only to exist as a transcendent power but also to exceed that transcendence and spill over into immanent form. “Schelling transforms the notion of subjectivity into a dynamic concept of the self as excessive, the subject as that which does not simply coincide with itself and therefore goes beyond itself.” God is composed of three powers: one centripetal, one centrifugal, and a third which binds the first two together in a creative tension. It is this creative tension that allows for the emergence of the world and the individual creative agencies within that world. Therefore, Schelling not only accounts for the essence of Plato and the existence of Aquinas, but also the freedom, imagination, and creative will experienced by the modern human as expressed over the course of a lifetime. “We participate in the Absolute’s own creativity and so, through genuine artwork, reveal the infinite within finite forms.”
Schelling’s panentheism provides an argument for cultivating a reverence for the Divine within the natural world, and also a sense of creative responsibility in our actions towards the Earth. Schelling describes the third power in his concept of God as a universal soul linking nature to spirit, yet all ultimately are the Divine. For Schelling, we live in an ensouled cosmos with which humans have a relationship. This provides a moral reason to care for the Earth and to protect it from wanton destruction.
All three participatory turns indicate a continuous thread running throughout history of a suffusion of the natural world, and the human, with the sacredness of the Divine. Yet today, as the industrial capitalist system consumes Earth’s finite bounty, little trace of this perception of the Divine in the world seems to remain within Western consciousness. For many, the dominant world view has departed even from the mechanized pantheism of Spinoza to an anthropotheism, with the human as God, which has completely disenchanted the world outside the human. The divine subjectivity of God lives in the human alone, if even there. In just over two millennia, nature has gone from being wholly informed by the Good, to a store of untapped resources made good only by human creative ingenuity.
To bring a halt to the rampant destruction of our home planet, humanity needs to recover the ability to perceive and commune with the divinity saturating the cosmos. Participation is a mode of reconnection that can allow one to see humanity’s embeddedness in, and partnership to, the world that we are. The participatory philosophies of Plato, Thomas, and Schelling each offer a crucial step in understanding one’s relationship with the Divine. While no one of these philosophies alone will serve to bring humanity forward into a harmonious ecological era, they provide the essential seeds for the future garden of that relationship to grow. Perhaps the Earth community stands on the threshold of a fourth participatory turn. If engaged fully, that vision may mature into a Form beyond what has yet been imagined by the human mind, a Form currently resting in the imagination of the Divine.
Sherman, Jacob H. “A Genealogy of Participation.” In The Participatory Turn, edited by Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman, 81-112. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.
 Jacob H. Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, ed. Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 84.
 Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” 87.
 Ibid, 91.
 Ibid, 97.
 Ibid, 100.
 Ibid, 100.
 Ibid, 102.
This essay has now been published in Issue 4 of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology.
Science and religion have been in an antagonistic battle of refutation since the dawn of modernity. Few have sought to reconcile them, and many would call it futile even to try. However, the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin brought a revolutionary way of thinking to the two world views that provides a vision of their harmonious relationship. Writing in the first half of the twentieth century, Teilhard, who had a scientific background in paleontology, sought to express the evolution of the cosmos as a divine teleological journey culminating, thus far, in the human being. Teilhard believed the unique self-reflective quality of the human, and the human capacity for Christian love, would ultimately lead to a divine convergence of the human community upon what he called the Omega Point, or the Cosmic Christ.
Throughout his life Teilhard had an immense sense of hope and optimism for the future, in spite of the tremendous suffering he witnessed during his life, especially as a stretcher-bearer in World War I. His ideas on the psychic capacity or interiority of all forms of matter have provided the seeds for subsequent thinkers, such as Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Their work addresses the inherent subjectivity of the cosmos, and the implications of Teilhard’s cosmology for creating a confluent relationship between humanity and the Earth community. In his lifetime, Teilhard’s innovative thoughts were resisted by the religious and scientific communities alike, yet, in retrospect, he is truly emerging as a visionary thinker far ahead of his time.
Archetypal astrology provides a unique entry point into Teilhard’s ideas, as one can gain deep insight by looking at the positions of the planets when he was born and comparing their associated archetypal character with the ideas he developed over the course of his career. The birth chart is so rich and multivalent in its symbolism that such an inquiry cannot be exhaustive, nor can it do full justice to the brilliance and complexity of his work. However, key examples from some of Teilhard’s essays in The Activation of Energy and The Heart of Matter, as well as his masterwork The Human Phenomenon, can illustrate how the planetary archetypes permeate his life work.[i]
Teilhard was born May 1, 1881 in Sarcenat, France, with a stellium of seven planets in his natal chart (see Figure 1). In sequence, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, Sun, Neptune, Venus, and Pluto are all within the orb of archetypal influence to each other. It is the nature of a stellium, which is a conjunction of three or more planets, that the planets most distant from each other within the stellium may not be within the regular orb of influence, 10°–12°, of a conjunction with each other. However, the archetypal fields associated with the planets situated between them activate the archetypal energies associated with the further planets and pull them into a mutually stimulating relationship.. In Teilhard’s chart, the planet Uranus is also in a 120° trine alignment to this stellium, in closest aspect to Teilhard’s Sun, Neptune, and Venus. Midpoints, which are the axis points calculated between two planets on the circle of the birth chart, are also archetypally operative in Teilhard’s chart, as can be seen in his Sun-Mercury-Pluto combination.
Teilhard was born with the Sun at the mathematical midpoint between Mercury and Pluto. The archetypal combination of Mercury and Pluto can often be observed in someone who is a deep thinker, who strives to look beneath the surface of reality. This trait is clearly evident in Teilhard, who delved into the core of things with an investigative passion, searching for the psychic interior of matter. Mercury relates to seeing and thinking, while Pluto relates to what lies beneath the surface. Teilhard argues that consciousness was present in matter from the beginning. During the course of evolution, consciousness and matter complexified in concert with one another, leading to the self-reflexive consciousness present in human beings. In the opening of The Human Phenomenon, Teilhard persuades his reader to perceive differently, to see deeper into the nature of the world. He writes that “the history of the living world can be reduced to the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes at the heart of a cosmos where it is always possible to discern more.”[ii] He also focuses on cultivating new senses to aid in this seeing, including “the sense of spatial immensity,” “the sense of depth,” and “the sense . . . of the organic,” all of which relate to the Plutonic character of mass, depth, and primordial biology. [iii]
To get a deeper understanding of the components of Teilhard’s stellium, it may be helpful to first look at the conjunctions in discrete combinations. The first two planets in the stellium are Mercury conjunct Saturn. While the Mercury-Pluto archetypal complex is expressed in the depth of Teilhard’s writing, the Mercury-Saturn combination can be seen in its careful, disciplined organization. Every chapter is divided and subdivided into numbered or lettered headings, his arguments are laid out with bullet-point precision, and each of his sentences is structured according to a distinct patterning. He takes the immensity and complexity of the universe and distills it into clearly articulated, logical arguments. As an example of the multivalence of the planetary expressions, Teilhard’s Mercury-Saturn complex also correlates to the posthumous publication of his work. Saturn relates to both negation and death; Teilhard’s religious superiors denied him the publication of his work until after he passed away.
The part of Teilhard’s chart that is arguably most central to his philosophy is the triple conjunction in his stellium of Neptune, Venus, and Pluto. Neptune correlates to the transcendent, spirituality, religion, and the divine; the archetype of Venus encompasses love, beauty, and harmony; and Pluto archetypally relates to biological evolutionary drive and transformation. The central purpose of Teilhard’s work was to marry biological evolution and Christian spirituality. Neptune, Venus, and Pluto are also conjunct his Sun, which relates to the impulse to illuminate and radiate; this aspect can be seen in how these ideas shine forth as the primary focus of his writings. The trine of these planets to Uranus, which relates to innovative, rebellious brilliance, among other things, can be seen in his presentation of both a new science and a new spirituality.[iv] He is a rebel against both scientific and Christian orthodoxy.
Teilhard was a Jesuit priest, devoted to a life-long practice of the Christian faith, which is one of the expressions of his Sun-Neptune conjunction. According to his philosophy, the telos of the universe is towards unity, a convergence upon the Omega Point, characterized by Neptune’s quality of oneness. He writes in The Human Phenomenon, “To be more is to be more united––and this sums up and is the very conclusion of the work to follow.”[v] The impulse “to be” is represented by the solar principle, as is the desire to be central and integrated; meanwhile Neptune unites that which has been divided and differentiated because it can dissolve the boundaries of distinction.
Teilhard’s central focus on the human in his work is clearly reflective of Uranus trine his Sun. He expresses the Promethean character of Uranus giving the fire of consciousness to humanity, in his emphasis on the exceptional self-reflexive quality of human thought. Sun-Uranus can correlate to the unique, individual human personality that must, in Teilhard’s view, be cultivated for the ultimate spiritual convergence at the Omega Point. This theme is suggested not only by Teilhard’s Sun-trine-Uranus, but also by the presence of Neptune in the aspect, which is in a 2° conjunction with Teilhard’s Sun. Neptune, which symbolizes spirituality and transcendence, as well as unity, correlates to the convergence on Omega.
Through his study of evolution, Teilhard was in the process of discovering and developing a new form of mystical Christian spirituality. He wrote in his essay “The Stuff of the Universe,” that “Far from being shaken in my faith by such a revolution, it is with irrepressible hope that I welcome the inevitable rise of this new mysticism and anticipate its equally inevitable triumph.”[vi] His words express the Uranus-trine-Neptune complex in his natal chart, with the Uranus archetype bringing a new revolution to the Neptunian realm of mysticism.
Many of the qualities of Teilhard’s new mysticism are archetypally conveyed by the rich, dynamic conjunction of the two outermost planets, Neptune and Pluto. He writes of the need for “a Christ who can be and is commensurate with the universe, in other words a God––the God we look for––of evolution.”[vii] He greatly fleshes out this concept of an evolutionary God in his essay “The Zest for Living,” in which he describes “zest” as “nothing less than the energy of universal evolution, which . . . wells up in what is most primitive . . . in each one of us.”[viii] For Teilhard, it is the human responsibility to cultivate this primordial zest, or energy, through the knowledge of religion. The Plutonic imagery is evident in his descriptions of evolution and primitive energy, as well as the zest for living itself, which manifest in the realm of Neptunian religion or spirituality. “A zest for living, the zest for living . . . would appear to be the fundamental driving force which impels and directs the universe along its main axis of complexity-consciousness.”[ix] The “zest for living” and the “fundamental driving force” relate archetypally to Pluto, while “consciousness,” in this context, is reflective of the Neptune archetype in combination with the Sun.
Faith is a motivating force in the zest for living, but for Teilhard humanity needs what is “no longer simply a religion of individuals and of heaven, but a religion of mankind and of the earth.”[x] In the essay “From Cosmos to Cosmogenesis,” Teilhard redefines and expands his conception of God, describing “the primordial transcendence of this new evolutive God,” “a God of cosmogenesis––that is a creator of the ‘animating’ type.”[xi] Not only is the Neptunian-Plutonic imagery clear in the description of primordial (Pluto) transcendence (Neptune) and a God (Neptune) of evolution (Pluto), but the archetypal nature of the trine to Uranus comes through in the characterization of God as animator, the bringer of the spark of life.
In the conclusion of “The Zest for Living,” Teilhard pulls both Venusian and Uranian themes into his evolutionary mysticism, by writing of “the vital charge of the world . . . in its higher, immediate, and most heightened form––love, as an effect of ‘grace’ and ‘revelation’.”[xii] Uranus relates to the “vital charge” and awakening of “revelation,” and Venus relates to love and grace, with grace particularly reflective of the archetypal combination of Venus with Neptune. The final paragraph bears the themes of Pluto, Neptune, Uranus, Venus, Mercury, and even the Sun: “The zest for life: the central and favoured ligament, indeed, in which can be seen, within the economy of a supremely organic universe, a supremely intimate bond between mysticism, research, and biology.”[xiii] The “organic universe,” the “zest for life,” and biology relate to Pluto, mysticism to Neptune, new research to both Uranus and Mercury, the “supremely intimate bond” and even the word “favoured” to Venus, and the “central ligament” reflects the Sun as the archetype associated with the center.
A specific look at Venus in conjunction with each of the two outermost planets illustrates Teilhard’s thinking further. Archetypally, the Venus-Pluto aspect comes through in his descriptions of “an amorized universe,” and also “a cosmogenesis of union in which everything, by structure, became inflexibly lovable and loving.”[xiv] Teilhard sees the ultimate harmony of physical and biological evolution; his view of the cosmos as a teleological cosmogenesis, a universe in an evolutionary process, bears the mark of the Pluto archetype, while the amorization and harmony reflect Venus.
Teilhard’s Venus-Neptune conjunction shines archetypally in his sense of Christian love. The convergence of humanity and the noosphere upon the Omega Point is ultimately achieved through a universal love, a loving of human center to human center, carried out by a love of the Cosmic Christ. “In other words, what we have to do is to love one another––because love is equally by definition the name we give to ‘inter-centric’ actions,”[xv] as Teilhard describes in “The Atomism of Spirit.” He continues: “The fact that the infinite and the intangible can be lovable, that the human heart can beat in true charity for its neighbor seems simply to be impossible,”[xvi] but Teilhard posits that such universal love between all humans is possible through spiritual convergence on the Omega Point through a love of the Cosmic Christ. If all the love of humanity unites through each individual coming into loving relationship with Christ, then that love is also extending through Christ back to each individual. Teilhard describes the need to transcend personal love relationships, represented by Venus, so they can be dissolved, spiritualized, and universalized by Neptune. When this universal love is achieved humanity has reached the Omega Point.
The attainment of Omega, the ultimate convergence of humanity in the noosphere, is the ultimate moment of both transcendent unification but also bears an “external resemblance to a death” or a “terminal paroxysm”[xvii] of the previous human situation. As part of his seven-planet stellium, Teilhard has a 10° conjunction of Saturn and Neptune, which is reflected in the above observations. The Omega Point is a conjoining of Saturnian material reality with spiritual transcendence, reached at the moment of Earth’s termination. Omega is “to unify the real” in “the concentration on itself of what we call ‘consciousness’ or ‘spirit’,” Teilhard writes in “The Activation of Human Energy.” [xviii]
At a young age Teilhard sought the divine in what was incorruptible, starting with iron, moving on to geology, and finally to the realm of spirit. What he desired was something of “Consistence: that has undoubtedly been for me the fundamental attribute of Being.”[xix] His Saturn-Neptune complex also clearly comes through in his statement: “The truth is that even at the peak of my spiritual trajectory I was never to feel at home unless immersed in an Ocean of Matter.”[xx] Saturn relates to the hard, the consistent, and the material, while Neptune comes through in the realm of spirit, consciousness, and oceanic imagery. Another illustration of his Saturn-Neptune can be seen when he writes “Matter was the matrix of Consciousness; and, wherever we looked, Consciousness, born of Matter, was always advancing towards some Ultra-Human.”[xxi]
Teilhard’s vision of the evolutive drive toward complexity-consciousness also carries the mark of the Saturn-Neptune-Pluto archetypal combination, with Saturn bearing the details of complexity and Neptune the realm of consciousness, while Pluto is related to the evolution and transformation inherent in this process. The ultimate convergence upon Omega, which preserves the individual personality within the transcendent unity, indicates Saturnian differentiation within Neptunian oneness. Teilhard’s Sun-Neptune complex can also be seen here, as the Sun relates to the individual personality. In his personal life, Teilhard’s dedication to his conservative Roman Catholic faith through every hardship, until his death, can also be associated with the qualities of Saturn-Neptune.
In the essay “A Clarification: Reflections on Two Converse Forms of Spirit,” Teilhard compares two approaches to unity, one of expansive Jupiterian quality, the other of Saturnian concentration. This essay is one example of Teilhard’s Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, which also conjoins his Sun-Neptune. He describes two paths to unity: “The one involves relaxation and expansion, the other tension and centration.”[xxii] Conclusively, Teilhard favors the way of tension and centration (Saturn), describing the other method as belonging to “youthful mankind” who would “try immediately to embrace all”[xxiii] when striving for unification with the divine. Nevertheless, despite his rejection of this path, it is still reflective of his aspect of Jupiter trine Uranus, which correlates to youthfulness and expansion of perspectives. Additionally, the Jupiter-trine-Uranus can be seen in Teilhard’s overall sense of cosmic wonder, in his abundance of new ideas, and the expansive new horizons which are constantly opening up to him.
Although he lived through a deeply transformative and disruptive time, surviving two world wars, and witnessing immense suffering as a stretcher-bearer in World War I, Teilhard had an overwhelming optimism concerning the future of humankind. In “The Moment of Choice,” an essay on World War II, Teilhard still sees such devastation in service of ultimate good: “The height of a peak is a measure of the depths of the abysses it overtops.”[xxiv] He sees the way forward as “the road of comradeship and brotherhood––and that is as true of nations as it is of individuals.”[xxv] The optimism of his Sun-Jupiter conjunction is colored by the Venusian qualities of relationship and love, as the planet Venus is also part of his stellium. Teilhard’s sense of hope in regards to the future is directly related to his faith in technology, which is reflective of his Sun-Jupiter trine Uranus, describing his progressive age as “not an industrial age but rather an age of research.”[xxvi] Humanity’s innovative, technological genius, associated with Uranus, is key to the ultimate convergence of the noosphere upon the Omega Point.
Although it is primarily connected with his Saturn-Neptune conjunction, Teilhard’s profound understanding of suffering is, in many ways, reflective of his entire birth chart. A single sentence he wrote in “The Spiritual Energy of Suffering” shines with each of the planetary archetypes conjoined in his stellium: “The astounding Christian revelation of suffering . . . can be transformed into an expression of love and a principle of union.”[xxvii] The “astounding Christian revelation” relates to a Jupiter-Uranus awakening of the Neptunian spiritual realm, while suffering relates deeply to the Saturn-Neptune complex. The positive transformation of the suffering reflects Jupiter and Pluto, while the expression of love is both Mercurial and Venusian, and the principle of union is that of Neptune.
Neptune and Pluto, as the slowest moving planets in our solar system for which astrologers have adequate research, correlations, and consensus on their meanings, only conjoin approximately once every 493 years. Their conjunction is therefore the rarest of all two-planet world transits. These conjunctions have marked the beginning of each major epoch for the last three millennia of recorded human history. Teilhard was born in 1881, at the beginning of the most recent Neptune-Pluto conjunction. A consistent pattern has been observed in astrological correlations that when a new, innovative, or transformative idea, invention, or creation is born it is reflected in the current transits but may not yet impact the current paradigm and thus remains relatively hidden. However, it appears that while the idea has been seeded under a certain transit it will often come to full fruition under a subsequent transit of the same planets. In Teilhard’s case, his monumental philosophy, which so clearly reflects his natal chart, may indeed be such a seeding. His dream of humanity’s convergence on the Omega Point may someday blossom fully under a future conjoining of the spiritually transformative planetary archetypes Neptune and Pluto.
Hand, Robert. Planets in Transit: Life Cycles for Living. Atglen, PA: Whitford Press, 2001.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Activation of Energy: Enlightening Reflections on Spiritual Energy. Translated by René Hague. London, England: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1978.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Heart of Matter: The Important Spiritual Autobiography of One of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. Translated by René Hague. London, England: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1978.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. Translated by Sarah Appleton-Weber. Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2003.
Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006.
Tompkins, Sue. Aspects in Astrology: A Guide to Understanding Planetary Relationships in the Horoscope. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2002.
[i] The interpretations of the planetary archetypes put forth in this essay come from a long astrological tradition, but are primarily grounded in the work of Richard Tarnas, Robert Hand, and Sue Tompkins, courses presented at the California Institute of Integral Studies, lectures from the Institute of Archetypal Cosmology, and from my own experience and practice.
[ii] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon, trans. Sarah Appleton-Weber (Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2003), 3.
[iii] Teilhard, The Human Phenomenon, 5.
[iv] The trine is called a “soft” aspect and tends to have a more confluent, flowing, harmonious quality in comparison to the “hard” or “dynamic” aspects of the conjunction, opposition, and square. The 60° sextile is also considered a soft aspect.
[v] Teilhard, The Human Phenomenon, 3.
[vi] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy: Enlightening Reflections on Spiritual Energy, trans. René Hague (London, England: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1978), 383.
[vii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 383.
[viii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 231-232.
[ix] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 235.
[x] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 240.
[xi] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 262.
[xii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 242.
[xiii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 242.
[xiv] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 266.
[xv] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 47.
[xvi] Teilhard, The Human Phenomenon, 212.
[xvii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 262.
[xviii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 393.
[xix] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of Matter: The Important Spiritual Autobiography of One of the World’s Greatest Thinkers, trans. René Hague (London, England: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., 1978), 18.
[xx] Teilhard, The Heart of Matter, 20.
[xxi] Teilhard, The Heart of Matter, 45.
[xxii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 219,
[xxiii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 220.
[xxiv] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 14.
[xxv] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 17.
[xxvi] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 354.
[xxvii] Teilhard, The Activation of Energy, 248.
Visions and dreams reside in a realm beyond our waking conscious mind, and pour forth into our lives at key moments through the portals of sleep and non-ordinary states of consciousness. This realm could be referred to as the unconscious, a domain greater than us, in which our egos participate to create our fuller Self. It could also be the Underdream, a current of the cosmos and the earth, in which we swim each night once we fall asleep. This realm might be compared to the unmanifest realm of physics, the realm in and out of which all material particles vibrate constantly as they exist in time and space. It is the archetypal realm that speaks to us through myth and symbol; as Joseph Campbell wrote, “…myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”
During our five-day course Nature and Eros, I was given the opportunity to work deeply with my own dreams and visions in a natural setting; it was an atmosphere where we were able to sink into the silence, a silence so pregnant that at last we could hear the full chorus of our dreams sing forth. The pivotal vision with which I worked during this time was a past life memory, which had been surfacing over the last few months leading up to this retreat. The memory was brought to the forefront of my consciousness by one of the dreams I experienced during the course. Working with our facilitator, Kerry Brady, I was able to reconnect with, and fill in more of, this past life experience to help incorporate my understanding of it into my waking life.
I have had a hazy awareness of my past life traumas since a young age, when I experienced severe night terrors that would leave me screaming and unable to recognize anyone around me. Bill Plotkin writes that “The earliest remembered dreams of our lives, the ones from early childhood, say age three to five, represent especially clear and portentous glimpses of the Underdream.” Stanislav Grof describes past life memories as
…sequences that take place in other historical periods and other countries and are usually associated with powerful emotions and physical sensations…. Their most remarkable aspect is a convincing sense of remembering and reliving something that one has already seen (déjá vu) or experienced (déjá vecu) at some time in the past.
Knowing that I carried these memories, I began to explore them recently to reach a better understanding of the experiences that have informed my psyche this lifetime.
In the memory, I am a woman in Mexico several centuries ago. The central moment of the memory is the sensation of my body dropping from a scaffold and hanging by the neck from a rope. For the last few years I have had intense pain in just that area of my neck. Grof points out that, as past life memories surface, “…incomprehensible emotional and psychosomatic symptoms now seem to make sense as karmic carry-overs from a previous lifetime.” It is dark and raining in the memory, and the rain and my tears drench my long hair, which is hanging in my face. I understood that my execution was a martyrdom in relation to Christianity, but whether I was a Christian or was executed at the hands of Christians I do not know. Among the dark figures surrounding me one is especially clear, a man kneeling in the forefront who I could strongly sense was the same soul as my beloved partner this lifetime, with whom I only recently became connected. Such recognition of others is a frequent aspect of past life recollections. Grof writes that
…it might suddenly seem that a certain person in one’s present life played an important role in a previous incarnation, the memory of which is emerging into consciousness. When this happens, one may seek emotional contact with a person who now appears to be a “soul-mate” from one’s karmic past.
During the Nature and Eros course my past life vision was dominating my mind one morning following a series of intense, vivid dreams. Many of the dreams took place in a harem, or whore house, in Mexico or Polynesia that was ruled by a tyrannical white man. The native women were treated horribly, and were abused and mutilated. One woman hung herself, although she took on the form of a pink crab when she did so. I witnessed this hanging from the same visual angle as in my past life experience. The emotional quality of this dream triggered a need to process my past life memory while I had the support and knowledge offered in this retreat.
I recounted my experience with Kerry while she asked me where in my body I felt it. I seem to carry the physical pain of the event in my neck and throat, but the emotional pain I carry in my jaw, which is the hardest to release. I came to recognize that the knowledge of my execution must have come suddenly, with little time to assimilate my approaching death. I felt the panic of those last moments, but the hardest part was after my body had dropped, knowing the action of my death had been completed, but my soul and life force had not yet departed my body. I felt the helplessness and sadness of those moments, and I kept repeating, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know this would happen.” I could see my partner kneeling before me, possibly my beloved in that lifetime also, and felt such pain at leaving him behind.
With Kerry’s assistance I moved to lying flat on my back, which finally allowed the tension in my neck and jaw to relax. An image came to me of looking at my body lying in a field of wildflowers, my body melting into the Earth. There was deep comfort in that scene. The manner of my death was unnatural, but my body was laid to rest like all others and was able to dissolve back into the Earth.
I honored the suffering of my former self, and also felt gratitude: her sacrifice allowed my soul to incarnate into my present life and body, to enter into such a good, nourishing womb and family. After lying for some time on the ground, I decided to go to the flower garden on the property where our retreat took place. I wanted to feel held in a womblike space, safe once again amongst the flowers of my final vision. Carl Jung’s archetypal interpretation of this image is that “The flower is in fact like a friendly sign, a numinous emanation from the unconscious.” Coming into this blossoming garden gave me a sense of healing and wholeness, a unity with my surrounding earth environment.
My sense of being embedded in a womblike unity transcended that of the physical womb in which I was nourished this lifetime for nine months. It had a feeling of cosmic wholeness without any physical boundaries, perhaps a realm between incarnations. Could this place be the same realm from which dreams come? If so, it is a realm of infinite potential, comparable to the unmanifest realm, or quantum vacuum, of physics. According to Brian Swimme, this vacuum is not a place in the physical world, but rather pure, underlying, generative creativity. The unmanifest realm contains all that exists and all that could potentially exist. Elementary particles manifest from this place, then vanish back into it. The whole of the physical world constantly vibrates in and out of the unmanifest realm.
Our waking conscious, for the most part, takes place in the physical, manifest world; however, in sleep our consciousness transcends our bodies and enters this realm of pure potential. Like physical particles, our consciousness may vibrate between realms as well, pulling narratives from our waking lives into the unfolding stories of our dreams. Our dreams tend to carry a thread of our own personality throughout, but in ways unexpected or contrary to our waking selves. Jung describes the dream realm as the unconscious, which “…remains beyond reach of subjective arbitrary control, in a realm where nature and her secrets can neither be improvised upon nor perverted, where we can listen but may not meddle.”
Dreams are one form of communication between this realm and our waking conscious. According to Plotkin, “every dream is an opportunity to develop our relationship to soul, to who we are beneath our surface personalities and routine agendas.” Because we lose the control that we have while awake as we dream, we remain open to the truths that dreams can reveal. By accessing this realm I was able to recover my final memories of a life that ended violently; but this death also allowed my soul to completely enter the timeless place between lifetimes.
On the final night of Nature and Eros I slept with the plant mugwort under my pillow, which is said to stimulate dreams. When I awoke the next morning I felt positive energy coursing through me in a way I have never felt after a dream. Much of the dream took place in rich, green gardens, echoing my experience the day before in the flower garden. A symbol also emerged from the dream, shaped like the glyph for the planet Venus, but with two long leaves on each side. The symbol represented the “Metaphysics of Mythology.” This was not a term with which I was familiar, and I could find no definition in my research, so I began to create my own definition.
A metaphysics of mythology would be an understanding and knowledge of the fundamental nature of cultural stories and beliefs pouring in from the archetypal realm of potential. Myths and dreams are two different storytellers sharing the same life-forging narratives with our souls. Joseph Campbell, whose work with mythology implies a metaphysics of the subject, compared these two languages of the unconscious: “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche.”
Myths are the translators of dreams, and the symbols of dreams are the messengers from our unconscious, from the unmanifest realm, the realm between lifetimes. Dreams are the mediators on behalf of our souls between the personalities of our current and previous lifetimes. They carry our soul narratives between the waking realms, whether it is between day to day in our present life, or between this lifetime and our past lives. As Plotkin writes, “Each dream provides a snapshot of the unfolding story and desires of the soul, and a chance for the ego to be further initiated into that underworld story and those underworld desires.” In this case, Plotkin refers to the underworld as the place of soul, to which we descend to uncover our true purpose in this lifetime.
My integration of my past life memories is the first leg of a journey that I imagine will take me a lifetime. The initial step was learning to bear witness to the suffering of someone who is both myself and an other. Part of my soul journey this lifetime is to connect with the previous journeys of my same soul, and to assimilate those lessons left by past experience. These experiences come to us in the language of dreams and myth, which we can slowly learn to read by understanding the role they play in our development as individuals. Ultimately these languages connect us, during sleep and between lifetimes, to the same place: a realm of infinite creative potential teeming with the possibilities of all that we are, have been, will never be, and someday will eventually become.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.
Grof, Stanislav. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Jung, Carl Gustav. The Portable Jung. Edited by Joseph Campbell. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1976.
Plotkin, Bill. Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003.
Swimme, Brian. Nature and Eros lecture. Tunitas Creek Ranch, CA: September 9, 2011.
 Carl Gustav Jung, The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1976), 329.
 Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003), 134-135.
 Brian Swimme, Nature and Eros lecture (Tunitas Creek Ranch, CA: September 9, 2011).
 Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 1.
 Plotkin, Soulcraft, 135.
 Stanislav Grof, Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 162.
 Grof, Psychology of the Future, 162.
 Ibid, 162.
 Jung, The Portable Jung, 349.
 Swimme, lecture.
 Jung, The Portable Jung, 329.
 Plotkin, Soulcraft, 129.
 Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 14.
 Plotkin, Soulcraft, 129.
Myths and legends have surrounded the deep, cold Loch Ness of the Scottish Highlands for centuries, evoking fear, wonder, curiosity and obsession in the hearts of locals, travelers and readers alike. (Figure 1). Tales of the Loch Ness Monster are famous worldwide, but there are other stories of water beasts far older than that of Nessie, reaching back at least fifteen hundred years, and perhaps much further. The loch has certain properties, such as great depth and low visibility, that give it an air of mystery which might have inspired some to wonder what nameless creatures could hide beneath the waves. Humans have lived near Loch Ness for millennia, since the end of the last glaciation 10,000 years ago. They have hunted in the forests, tilled the fields, and built homes on the loch’s shores. Urquhart Castle was built on the loch’s edge due to the strategic view it offered of the expansive body of water. Myths of various water beasts have been persistent in Highland lore throughout history, but it was not until the 1930s that the legend of one particular monster in the loch began to develop. The increase in monster sightings coincided with the construction of a road on the northern shore of Loch Ness, which opened up the area to tourists and other visitors interested in the Highlands. Whether the Loch Ness Monster truly exists, or is a long-upheld mythological tradition, is still impossible to answer, because the loch itself is not easily explored and hides its secrets well.
Figure 1 – Map of Loch Ness
Creation Myth of Loch Ness
There is a legend of the creation of Loch Ness, which was passed down in Highland tradition, and finally recorded in 1914 by William Mackay in his book Urquhart and Glenmoriston. In this myth, there is a bountiful and fertile valley sheltered on all sides by high sylvan mountains. The valley was fed by a pure spring with the powerful property to heal any disease, a blessing bestowed to those who dwelt in the vale by Daly the Druid. Daly laid a protective stone over the spring and he commanded that it should be replaced immediately following the drawing of any water. He said, “The day on which my command is disregarded desolation will overtake the land.”
For many years the people followed the Druid’s advice and were diligent to replace the stone each time they drew water from the spring. One day, a woman went to the spring and left her child at home to play near the fireside. Just as she had finished filling her pail with water she heard her child cry out and knew he was in danger of being burnt. She rushed back to her home and saved the child, yet in her panic neglected to cover the spring once more. To the dismay of the people living in the valley, the spring overflowed and began to rapidly fill the long, narrow vale. The people retreated into the mountains and lamented in Gaelic: “Tha loch ‘nis ann, tha loch ‘nis ann!” meaning, “There is a lake now, there is a lake now!” and the hills and mountains echoed back their sorrowful cry. The loch has remained in this same valley, and to this day is known as Loch Nis (Witchell 12) (Figure 2).
This story demonstrates that Loch Ness has been a subject of fascination for the people living near it far back into history. The idea that a former civilization lies inaccessible beneath the waters is just one of the many unanswerable questions regarding what is invisible in the loch. The origins of the loch in human history have become the subject matter of legend. However, the actual origins of Loch Ness predate human habitation of the area.
Figure 2 – Aerial view of Loch Ness
The Great Glen Fault and the Last Glaciation
Loch Ness is located in the northernmost section of the Great Glen of Scotland, a large mass of land situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea (Bridgland 5) (Figure 3). The loch lies near the Great Glen Fault, one of three fault lines in Scotland. The Great Glen fault is the most active of the three and is the main source of most tremors and earthquakes in Britain (18). It is possible that early human settlers might have attributed such tremors to the rumblings of a hidden monster rather than to the fault line.
Figure 3 – Map of the Great Glen
During the last glaciation over 10,000 years ago, Scotland was covered by 4,000 feet of ice. Nothing but the tallest mountain, Ben Nevis, which is 60 miles to the southwest of Loch Ness, was left exposed (Witchell 9) (see Figure 3). The glaciation smoothed out the sides of the Great Glen and created landforms such as the long, thin double-basin of Loch Ness, the largest lake in all of Britain. (Bridgland 19, Jones et al. 38, Witchell 9). Strone Point, a strategically positioned spit on which Urquhart Castle was later built, was also exposed by the glaciation (Bridgland 19) (Figure 4).
Figure 4 – Strone Point and Urquhart Castle
Without the great weight of the glaciers, the landmass of Scotland rose slowly by a few millimeters a year. Fjords once connected to the ocean were eventually cut off and became inland lakes. Over time these isolated lakes lost their salinity due to rainwater, tributary rivers, burns and streams. Certain marine species, such as salmon and trout, were trapped in these lakes and evolved to survive in the new freshwater environment. This evidence of other adapted animals has inspired theories regarding the ancestral origins of the Loch Ness Monster (Bauer 11).
The long, narrow body of Loch Ness progresses in a line of “unbroken straightness” which is “unquestionably beautiful” to behold (Baddeley 230). Altogether the loch is 24 miles long, and yet a mere mile and a half wide (See Figure 1). Its depth is, as of yet, unknown; the deepest humans have ventured is 820 feet in a submarine, yet sonar testing suggests the loch may be 975 feet or deeper (Figure 5). In its entirety the loch is approximately 263,000 million cubic feet in volume, making it the largest in Great Britain (Witchell 10, 9). The London paper published a piece on Loch Ness in 1652 describing it as
a standing water called Lough Nesse, which hath a property never to freeze, and is foure and twenty miles long, and in some places is two miles, and in others three miles broad, and lyeth betwixt the Highlands so that she will doe excellent service by preventing the Highlanders to make their passage that way, which is frequented by them (qtd. in Bridgland 110).
The Highlanders were a great source of fear to the English, who saw them as savages, comparable to the “Red Indians” of the Americas (Bridgland 124). The aforementioned property of Loch Ness to never freeze is due to its depth and volume. The heat generated by the loch throughout the winter months is equivalent to burning two million tons of coal, and keeps snow from settling on the ground in the immediate area. This helps keep the surrounding land, which is often plagued by cold mist, storms, and few hours of sunlight, much warmer than if no lake were present (Witchell 11).
Figure 5 – Cross-section of Loch Ness
Rich woodlands of birch, hazel, oak and pine lie on the western side of Loch Ness (Baddeley 230, Bridgland 21) (Figure 6). The Ruisky Forest is known for its enormous trees; some specimens of birch have reached nine feet in girth on occasion (Tranter 121). The area is home to a variety of large or rare animals, such as the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), which is the largest bird in Britain, and the red deer (Cervus elaphus), the country’s largest known animal. The elusive Scottish wildcat (Felis sylvestris grampia) still can be found on occasion in the Highland woods, which was also home to wolves (Canis lupus) until the last was killed in 1743 (Witchell 11-12).
The woods surrounding Loch Ness rise to approximately 1,000 feet up the hills before giving way to heather moors, peat bogs, and bare rocks (Barron 233, 50, Tranter 121). Rosy hued hills give way to mountains, which rise more than 2,000 feet on each side of the loch. The River Ness issues through a gap in the mountains at the north end of the loch (Baddeley 150, Witchell 9). The foothills are close to the shore on the eastern side of the loch and the area is dominated by scree, which are small mounds of loose stones (Baddeley 230). For the most part, the shores of Loch Ness are quite steep and drop sharply off into the water (Witchell 11). Although humans have lived in the Highlands for thousands of years, the land directly surrounding the loch has been developed slowly and much of the original woodland remains (Witchell 11).
Figure 6 – Woods around Loch Ness
Early Human Settlement
Very little is known about the first inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands. They migrated in log canoes and hide-covered boats up the coasts of Britain approximately 10,000 years ago, not long after the end of the last glaciation. Evidence has been found, in the form of high concentrations of shellfish remains, along coastal areas where early humans traveled (Bridgland 19). There is also more recent evidence dated to 5,000 b.c.e. of hunter-gatherers living in the area. A hearth, along with flint, shells, and red deer bones, were all excavated from a site in Inverness, the city just north of Loch Ness (Figure 7). Another site with shellfish debris and red deer antlers was found in Muirtown, just across the River Ness, which date to approximately 4,000 b.c.e. (20) There is some evidence, such as hazelnut trees growing in a greater concentration than usual, that early hunter-gatherers managed some of the woodlands around Loch Ness as a food source. After 3500 b.c.e., when agriculture was developed in Britain, early farmers cleared some of the woodland near the loch. Little evidence remains of these farmers except a few objects made of stone. Three stone axes were found in 1892 near Loch Ness that date to the beginning of agriculture in Britain. They were most likely used to clear the woodland to create agricultural fields (21) (Figure 8).
Figure 7 – Flint tools and fragments
Once agriculture commenced in the Highlands, the farmers began building settlements, but still very little was built on the shores of Loch Ness itself. The exceptions to this were structures built for their strategic view of the loch, such as Fort Augustus on the south end and Urquhart Castle close to the north end (see Figure 1).
Figure 8 – Stone axe
Jutting into the loch from its seat on Strone Point, Urquhart Castle is arguably the most beautiful structure near Loch Ness (Bridgland 5) (see Figure 4). The castle was a stronghold for over a thousand years and was originally built as a Pictish fort. Little is known about the Great Glen of Scotland from the 1st millennium c.e., because the inhabitants did not keep written records of their history. The first written account of the area was compiled in the 2nd century c.e. by Ptolemy of Alexandria, but many aspects are inaccurate (25). Sir Thomas Urquhart wrote in the 1650s that the castle was founded by his ancestor Beltistos Conachar in 554 b.c.e., but the eccentric Sir Thomas also claimed that he could trace his lineage back to Adam and Eve, and much of what he wrote has been dismissed. An Irish nobleman named Conachar did, however, receive Urquhart Castle in 1160 c.e. as a reward for fighting on behalf of the king of Scotland (47). The Durward and Comyn families controlled the shores of Loch Ness in the 13th century, and were each successively rewarded possession of Urquhart Castle for services to the Scottish crown (52). Alan Durward built the castle into the largest stronghold in the Highlands in the 1230s, and it was further improved by the Comyns after Durward’s death in 1275 (53-54). Its size and strategic position on the loch made it a covetable stronghold for many lords over the centuries (62). The English captain, Edmund Burt, described Urquhart Castle in the mid-18th century as having
a pleasant and romantic situation, commanding a most agreeable view of Lochness, almost from the one end of it at Fort Augustus to the other at Bona, and also of the lands woods and hills surrounding the loch on the south east and north (qtd. in Bridgland 124).
The woods near Urquhart, renowned for their deer, were kept as hunting grounds for the nobility in the castle (Bridgland 69). Some timber was harvested, however, and sold in Inverness. Urquhart became a nexus for trade in the 16th century, and goods from the surrounding area were gathered there before being shipped down river to Inverness, from which they were further distributed. In addition to timber, the furs of beaver, fox, and pine marten were sold, as well as salmon and trout catches from the loch. The trade created constant water traffic between Strone Point and the River Ness (71, 69).
In addition to castle fortresses, Highlanders used another defensive structure particularly associated with lochs to guard against attack. These are crannogs, a structure within the loch built on either stilts, or an artificial island, or sometimes a combination of the two (Figure 9). Crannogs were linked to the mainland by a causeway which could be removed if need be. Some lochs in the Highlands contained many of these, but Loch Ness is so deep only one was built on the human-made island Eileen Muireach, also named Cherry Island (Bridgland 24). The Loch Ness Monster has been sighted off of this crannog, and there is the possibility that the crannog has even been mistaken for the monster (“A Guide and Tour of Events and Places Around Loch Ness”).
Figure 9 – Crannog
Highland Myths and Monsters
Although Loch Ness is believed to be home to the most famous of Highland monsters, this creature is by no means the only one in Scottish lore. An ancient tradition in the belief of monsters and spirits dwelling within Scotland’s lochs includes denizens such as water-horses, kelpies, and water-bulls, among others (Tranter 79, Bauer 159). For centuries the animal believed to live in Loch Ness was called the ancient name Each Uisage, Gaelic for water-horse (Holiday 88). Parents told their children not to play near the shores of Loch Ness for fear of another mythical creature, the water-kelpie (Bauer 2). A kelpie is traditionally known as a sly creature that lures weary travelers from their paths into bogs or lakes where they subsequently drown (Witchell 13).
Oral traditions within the Highlands, and in many other locales around the world, speak of giant sea serpents. Celts, Vikings, Irish Picts, and even Native Americans told tales of malevolent sea monsters that would prey upon unwary seafarers (Bauer 12). Located only a mile or two from Loch Ness, on the grounds of Balmacaan House, are Neolithic carvings of giant sea serpents drawn by early human settlers (Holiday 134). Ancient ritual and symbol stones carved by Pictish inhabitants of the Highlands also depicted serpents and other monsters. It seems there was widespread belief in the Great Glen of large and mysterious loch inhabitants, for multiple bodies of water even bear the name Loch na Beiste, Lake of the Beast (Tranter 79).
The earliest records available referring to monsters in Loch Ness were written by Celtic missionaries who traveled through the Scottish Highlands spreading Christianity in the 5th century c.e. (Tranter 79). The most prominent of these was Saint Columba, who is said to have encountered a water monster in the River Ness (Bauer 159). The tale is recorded by the abbot Adamnan of Iona in his most famous work Vita Columbae, or The Life of Saint Columba, which he wrote sometime in the 7th century c.e. (Barron 51).
Fourteen hundred years ago, in the year 565 c.e., Columba saw in Loch Ness the aquatilis bestia, as Adamnan named it (Holiday 2). In one version of the story Columba came across a group of Picts burying a man bitten by the monster. Columba placed his holy staff upon the man’s chest and brought the man back to life. A different version tells of a Pict who was killed by the monster while swimming. Seeing this, Columba ordered one of his men, Lugne Mocumin, to swim after him. Mocumin did so without hesitation; when the monster reappeared, Saint Columba made the sign of the Cross, saying, “Thou shalt go no further nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” In terror the monster retreated immediately and Mocumin’s life was spared (Witchell 14). The third story of Saint Columba and the monster is one in which a peaceful agreement was made between the two. The aquatilis bestia willingly towed the Saint’s boat from one shore to the other, and in thanks Columba granted it freedom within Loch Ness for eternity (Witchell 14).
Mention of the Loch Ness Monster reemerged in written history in 1520 when Fraser of Glenvackie supposedly fought and killed the last dragon left in Scotland, yet it was also said that he was not such a hero as to have defeated the Loch Ness Monster (Witchell 15). Despite such stories, many locals living near Loch Ness are adamant that there never has been a tradition of monsters or mythical creatures living in Loch Ness (Bauer 160).
The Modern Monster Myth
From reigning of the Water-horse
That bounded till the waves were foaming,
Watching the infant tempest’s course,
Chasing the sea-snake in his roaming.
– Sir Walter Scott (qtd. in Holiday 1)
The story of the Loch Ness Monster, affectionately known as Nessie by Highland locals, was unknown outside of Scotland until fairly recently. Not until near the end of the 19th century was there any widespread mention of this particular monster, and the first official sighting was published in newspapers in 1933. To this day the existence of Nessie, or a group of Nessie-like animals, has never been officially proven (Bridgland 7).
Reasons for the recent mention in history of so large a creature may be related to the inaccessibility of the area to large numbers of tourists until the 19th century. As fear of the supposedly savage Highlanders decreased, tourists from southern Great Britain traveled through the Highlands to see the lochs and castles (Bridgland 124). The tourism of the time focused on spectacles such as Urquhart Castle rather than the beauty of the landscape. A guide to the Highlands published in 1889 described Loch Ness as such:
… after entering Loch Ness at Bona Ferry, we have Aldourie House, an old baronial mansion, on the left. On the right the hills are of a ruddy hue, and, as we proceed they gradually develop into mountains, but there is nothing specially noteworthy until… Glen Urquhart slopes down to a pleasant bay on the right hand, and the old fragmentary ruin of Urquhart Castle acquires from its position on the promontory a strikingly picturesque appearance (Baddeley 150)…. We pass perhaps the most picturesque bit on Loch Ness––the fine but fragmentary ruin of Urquhart Castle, standing on an almost isolated rock which projects into the lake (231).
Interest in the loch itself, and what might live within it, was not inspired until improvements were made in 1933 to the A-82 Highway, a 23-mile road running along the north shore of the loch (Tranter 79) (see Figure 1). A screen of trees was cleared, offering a better view of the water, which might explain the increase in monster sightings that year (“Loch Ness Timeline”). There have been over a thousand sightings of Nessie; in 1934 alone there were over twenty sightings, all on warm, calm days (Bauer 169, 160) (Figures 10 and 11). The locals do not disregard the possibility of Nessie living in the loch, and according to Nicholas Witchell it is a “real issue for which so many people have been fighting for so long” (124-25).
Figure 10 – Surgeon’s photo of Nessie
The diver Duncan MacDonald was commissioned in 1880 to examine a ship that had sunk at the southern end of the loch off of Fort Augustus (see Figure 1). Not long after he had been lowered into the water he began sending desperate signals that he wanted to be pulled back up. When he emerged he was pale and shaking and refused to speak of his experience for days. Finally when he did speak he said that, as he examined the sunken ship’s keel, he had seen an enormous animal lying on a shelf of rock next to the ship. He said “It was a very odd-looking beastie, like a huge frog.” From then on he never dove into Loch Ness again (Witchell 17-18).
Figure 11 – Nessie near Urquhart Castle
Most reports of Nessie sightings have been similar, describing a large animal with a long neck and small head, between 20-30 feet long and sometimes with flippers on the side when that portion of the animal is visible. Many disbelievers of the myth speculate about what this creature could be, ranging from giant eels to escaped circus elephants (Jordan) (Figure 12). Some believe that when the River Ness is high, animals may come in from the North Sea such as seals, otters or even small whales (Bauer 160) (see Figure 3).
Figure 12 – Elephant
Author F.W. Holiday has drawn a connection between Nessie and the giant marine Orms, or sea serpents, which the Norse called Sjø-Orm, and which inspired the serpentine form of their ships (120). Roy Mackal, a professor at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, theorizes that the monster is descended from an embolomer, a giant primitive amphibian thought to have lived 270 million years ago (Witchell 142). This theory matches Duncan MacDonald’s description of a large frog.
The most popular belief of what Nessie’s species might be is an evolved descendent of a plesiosaur. The plesiosaur was a marine, fish-eating dinosaur living in the British Isles but thought to have been extinct for the last 70 million years (Witchell 141) (Figure 13). A breeding population of plesiosaurs may have become landlocked in Loch Ness once the land rose after the last glaciation (Bauer 162). The most common descriptions of Nessie closely match the way scientists believe plesiosaurs once looked: a long neck and small head, larger body and flippers on either side. However, it seems unlikely that a group of plesiosaurs survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 165 million years ago. Even if they did, it is even less likely that their descendants also survived during the glacial cycles in Europe up until 10,000 years ago (“Loch Ness Timeline”).
Figure 13 – Plesiosaur
Although no animals have yet been proven to live in the loch, Robert Rines and Peter Scott, of the Academy of Applied Science (aas), gave the animals official species protection in 1975 under the name Nessiteras rhomboptyryx, meaning “wonder of Ness with the diamond-shaped fin” (Bauer 25). In June of 1975, the aas took a series of photographs with a high-quality, camera suspended deep into the loch. The camera was able to penetrate the murky water somewhat, and it seems its regular flashing attracted the attention of a large animal at last. Nicholas Witchell’s book The Loch Ness Story was published a year before these findings, but he released a second edition in which he describes the experience of viewing some of these photographs:
The animal was facing almost head on to the camera. Beneath the body were two clearly definable appendages. The skin looked very rough and potted, even at this range (which had been estimated at thirty to forty feet), and was a red-brown colour (Figure 14).
…The picture that came on to the screen was, without a doubt, and I make no apology for the continued use of superlatives, the most remarkable animal photograph ever taken….
It was the head of the creature, in close-up detail from a range of only eight feet…. The head occupied the left-hand section of the frame and was more or less in profile: the open mouth of the animal showed what appeared to be teeth inside it; a prominent, bony ridge ran down the centre of the face into a thick, hard-looking upper lip, one on either side of the central ridge. Most remarkable of all, there were two clearly defined stalks or tubes protruding from the top of the head (149) (Figure 14).
Figure 14 – Body-neck photograph
Reproductions of these pictures are of very low quality, which leaves them open to skepticism. The pictures provide proof to those who already believe and further reason for doubt to those who do not believe. Part of the fascination with the Nessie myth is that it never has been proven and is difficult to do so. If affirmative evidence were to be found it is likely interest in the subject would fade.
Figure 15 – Gargoyle head photograph
Ecological Inspirations of Mythology
What aspects of this particular loch might inspire and perpetuate such a myth as the Loch Ness Monster? A feeling of mystery and gloom is embedded within the landscape, from the heights of the flanking mountains to the depths of the cold loch. Edmund Burt described the mountains surrounding Loch Ness as having “stupendous bulk, frightful irregularity, and horrid gloom, made yet more sombrous by the shades and faint reflections they communicate one to another” (qtd. in Bridgland 124).
The loch itself has many qualities which might inspire myths of monsters lurking beneath its dark waters. It can flood its shores easily, making it dangerous during times of high rainfall. The catchment area is large enough that the level of the loch can rise quite rapidly (Witchell 11). As an example, Loch Ness is recorded to have risen nine feet between 1843 and 1847, and in 1849 it rose four feet in just one day and flooded the adjacent land (Jones et al. 44).
Loch Ness is oligotrophic, which means that it is deficient in plant nutrients yet has high oxygen content in the depths (Jones et al. 43). The waters have a low pH value, and the acidity combined with its steep banks do not allow for significant plant growth (Witchell 11). Sightings of the Loch Ness Monster have been attributed to a floating island or a vegetation mat, however, this is unlikely due to the loch’s unfriendly conditions for plant growth (16). The floating island could possibly have been the single crannog built in the loch, but such a mistake is doubtful.
The waters of Loch Ness are acidic because a large quantity of peat debris is washed down from the bogs above the tree line by the tributary rivers. The peat particles are suspended in the water fifty feet below the surface, making the water opaque and apparently quite eerie for divers. Although the surface temperature of the loch varies with climate conditions, the waters below fifty feet, at the line where visibility is limited, remain a constant temperature of 42°– 44° Fahrenheit year round (Witchell 11). Sediment accumulation has been increasing in Loch Ness since 1820, when the Caledonian Canal was constructed (Jones et al 44). The canal connects Lochs Ness, Oich, and Lochy, and runs for 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea (Witchell 21) (see Figure 3). Sediment deposits from the canal have further decreased visibility in the loch, as have higher erosion rates from afforestation. In the 1980s, land near the loch’s shores was plowed and planted with tree plantations, causing topsoil to erode into the loch (Jones et al. 45).
Many people drawn to the myth of the Loch Ness Monster speculate on why, if there is a breeding population of large animals, no carcasses have ever been found. There is a local saying about Loch Ness: “the loch never gives up its dead.” Due to its great depth and cold, the loch claims dead bodies and sinks them to the unknown depths of the lake bottom (Witchell 146). This feature of the loch is one that might inspire fear and curiosity as to earlier inhabitants of the Great Glen; all evidence of the past lies inaccessible on the lake floor.
The suggestion has been made that Nessie, or the population of Nessie-like animals, has been killed by pollution in the loch (Bauer 165). Nine sewage works empty into Loch Ness and have slowly been adding excess nutrients and causing eutrophication in the loch over the last few decades (Jones et al. 38). The existence of the Loch Ness Monster has never been proven to the world, but if the chance were lost due to human negligence it would be a great loss to science and mythology both. The legend of the Loch Ness Monster has been upheld by its uncertainty and its roots in oral tradition, and there is the hope that it will be carried into generations of the future as well.
The legend of the Loch Ness Monster, and of so many other mythical Highland creatures, stems from the human imagination and the inspiration provided by a mysterious landscape. The conditions of this landscape were created before humans were even present in the area. The glacial cycles and the rising land formed a steep, cold freshwater lake; centuries later that process inspired the idea that an enormous animal might have been trapped within the lake. The only observers of the loch were those living in its direct vicinity, from the early hunter-gatherers to the nobility of Urquhart Castle and the tradesmen of Inverness. The isolation of the Highlands kept sightings of Nessie to a minimum until the 20th century when the myth exploded into a worldwide fascination. Whether there is, or was, a Loch Ness Monster is not the question to ask of this landscape, but rather why this landscape inspired the myth. The gloom of the mountains, the eerie invisibility in the water, the unknown depth, and the fact that all dead bodies sink to the bottom all offer reasons to believe more lies beneath the waves than is known. Loch Ness is an ecological system perfect for the creation of a myth.
Baddeley, M.J.B.. Scotland (Part I); Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Highlands. London: Dulau & Co., 1889.
Barron, Hugh (ed.). The County of Inverness. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985.
Bauer, Henry H. The Enigma of Loch Ness : Making Sense of a Mystery. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Bridgland, Nick. Urquhart Castle and the Great Glen. London: Batsford, 2005.
Holiday, F.W. The Great Orm of Loch Ness. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1968.
Jones, Vivienne J., Richard W. Batterbee, Niel L. Rose, Chris Curtis, Peter G. Appleby, Ron Harriman, and Adrian J. Shine. “Evidence for the pollution of Loch Ness from the Analysis of its Recent Sediments.” The Science of the Total Environment. 203(1997): 37-49.
Jordan, Mary. “Elephantine Theory Stirs Misty Waters of Loch Ness.” The Washington Post 8 March 2006 Web.7 May 2009. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp- dyn/content/article/2006/03/07/AR2006030701434.html>.
Shine, Adrian. “A Guide and Tour of Events and Places Around Loch Ness.” Loch Ness & Morar Project. 2000. 1 April 2009 http://www.lochnessproject.org/explore_loch_ness/tour_guide_Loch_Ness.htm
Shine, Adrian. “Loch Ness Timeline.” Loch Ness & Morar Project. 2000. 1 April 2009 <http://www.lochnessproject.org/adrian_shine_archiveroom/loch_ness_archive_ti meline.htm>.
Tranter, Nigel. The North-East: The Shires of Banff, Moray, Nairn, with Easter Inverness and Easter Ross. London: Hodder and Stougton Limited, 1974.
Witchell, Nicholas. The Loch Ness Story. Revised. edition. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1975.
This was my first foray into the world of Tolkien studies, an essay I wrote at age 17 that captures my earliest scholarly perspectives on the tales of Middle-Earth and the man who brought them into written form.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
J.R.R. Tolkien gave to our time a reenchanted image of our world in his mythological epic The Lord of the Rings. He lived through many deep experiences, losses, and challenges, and it was from this journey of life that the noble and timeless vision of the mythology of Middle-earth was born. The Lord of the Rings gives an enchanted view of our world in which the individual comes to possess the willpower to carry the weight of the world, enabling him or her to overcome the evils present in both the inner and outer journey.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He was born to British parents, Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Suffield. When Tolkien was only three years old he moved back to England with his mother and younger brother Hilary. The following year Arthur Tolkien died of a severe hemorrhage, leaving his family with very little money. For the following four years Tolkien and his family lived in a little home in the countryside of Sarehole. Later in life Tolkien said those early years in Sarehole were the most formative part of his life. It was there that his great affection for nature, especially trees, developed. “He reveled in his surroundings with a desperate enjoyment, perhaps sensing that one day this paradise would be lost.”
Tolkien’s connection with his mother was one of the strongest relationships he had in his lifetime. While they were living in Sarehole, Mabel Suffield chose to convert from her family’s faith of Unitarianism to Catholicism, against her family’s wishes. Tolkien saw how much her faith meant to her and how much she suffered for it. In part because of her, Tolkien’s faith became a central aspect of his character. Mabel Suffield educated her two sons at home before they attended grammar school. She taught Tolkien Latin, French, and German and encouraged him not only to learn languages but to love them. In the course of his life he learned nineteen languages and came to invent another fourteen while also making a career as a philologist. Language became the roots of his Middle-earth mythology.
In 1904 Mabel Suffield’s health began to deteriorate. She spent much of her time in bed but recovery soon proved to be impossible. On November 14, when Tolkien was twelve years old, his mother died, leaving her two sons as orphans. When she died Tolkien’s religious faith and his love of languages were solidified within him, and he devoted himself passionately to them. At this time Tolkien began to see the loss and tragedy life presents us with. In a scene in The Lord of the Rings one of Tolkien’s hero characters, Aragorn (also called Strider), begins to tell a tale of Middle-earth. “‘I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel,’ said Strider, ‘. . . It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.’” The tales of Middle-earth carry the same emotions and themes that we experience in our own world today.
In the course of Tolkien’s school career he made three very close friends: Christopher Wiseman, Robert Quilter Gilson, and Geoffrey Bache Smith. They were the four members of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, also called the T.C.B.S. Much later in his life Tolkien was part of a literary group who “with a blend of wit and humility” called themselves the Inklings. One member of the Inklings was Tolkien’s closest friend and colleague, C.S. Lewis. Both of these social groups established in Tolkien a deep sense of camaraderie and fellowship, a theme that is also carried throughout his mythology. In 1916 the four members of the T.C.B.S. joined the British forces in World War I. The horror of the trenches stayed with Tolkien his entire life. Two members of the T.C.B.S, Gilson and Smith, were killed in action. Before he died G.B. Smith sent Tolkien a letter saying,
Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! . . . May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.
It was these words that set Tolkien to work creating a mythology for England. He felt that unlike other cultures, such as the Greek, Finnish, and Norse, the English did not have their own mythology. In Tolkien’s mind the Arthurian legends did not suffice, because they contained Christianity. The first idea for the mythology came from an Old English poem called Crist by Cynewulf. From two of the lines were born his first character and the name for the land of his creation.
Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
offer middangeard monnum sended.
Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
Above Middle-earth sent unto men.
His first stories developed into what was much later published as The Silmarillion. They were tales about the creation of Middle-earth and the events that followed. Middle-earth was the same as our earth but set in a different time.
Meanwhile Tolkien’s external life continued and he married and had three sons and one daughter. His wife, Edith Bratt, was the source for the character of the Elven lady Lúthien Tinúviel. Their life together is reflected in two love stories set in Middle-earth: that of Beren and Lúthien, and that of Arwen and Aragorn. Today Edith and Tolkien are buried under the same tombstone bearing the unusual epigraph:
Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889–1971.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892–1973.
Tolkien had a very deep connection to his wife, which he portrayed beautifully in Aragorn’s final farewell to Arwen in “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen.” “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!” Although a Christian, Tolkien was still open-minded to accept that neither he nor anyone else truly knew what followed death.
The brilliant storyteller in Tolkien came through in two very different forms. The first was the grand mythology set out in The Silmarillion with its high, eloquent language; the second was his love of creating fairy-tales and adventures to tell his children. One day while grading tests for one of his classes at Oxford, Tolkien was struck by an idea and wrote down the simple sentence, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Hobbit is a derivative of the Old English word hol-bytla meaning “hole-dweller.” Tolkien, however, didn’t figure out this meaning until long after his discovery of their existence in his imagination. Throughout the creation of Middle-earth Tolkien felt that rather than inventing the stories and characters he was discovering them. He felt that these tales were being channeled through him and that he was merely “sub-creating” their existence. (Sub-creation was a term Tolkien came up with to describe his feeling of discovering his stories and characters rather than inventing them.)
Hobbits are a little people of a land called the Shire located in the northwest of Middle-earth. “Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people” who “love peace and quiet and good tilled earth.” “They dressed in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green; but they seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leathery soles and were clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads, which was commonly brown. . . . Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking.” The Shire is primarily based on Tolkien’s childhood home of Sarehole and the hobbits resemble the ordinary folk of the English countryside. Tolkien even considered himself to be a hobbit “in all but size” and there are remarkable similarities between himself and the hero of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. The discovery of the good-natured, three-foot high, hairy-footed hobbits was the missing link to bring the rich mythology of The Silmarillion and the children’s fairy-tales together into one.
Tolkien set The Hobbit in the third age of Middle-earth, thousands of years after the events of The Silmarillion. The Hobbit tells of the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins who traveled with a company of thirteen dwarves and the wizard Gandalf to the Lonely Mountain of Erebor to regain the dwarves’ stolen treasure. Along the way Bilbo picks up a magic ring that makes its wearer invisible. He found the ring in a cave where its previous owner, the slimy creature Gollum, had accidentally dropped it. Unbeknownst to both Bilbo and Tolkien, this ring had more power than was first apparent.
The Hobbit was published in 1937 and was an unexpectedly huge success. Soon there was great public demand for more stories about hobbits. Tolkien set about writing a sequel the same year that The Hobbit was published, and the theme he chose to develop was that of this particular ring. Over the next twelve years, with unending encouragement from C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s story became his life’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings.
In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo’s little ring turns out to be the ruling Ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron who plans to regain it and rule all of Middle-earth. The One Ring has the power to corrupt all that bear it. One who keeps this Ring of Power “does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness.” It stretches the life already given to its bearer so that his life becomes a mere shadow of what it once was. It becomes the task of Bilbo’s young cousin Frodo Baggins to destroy the One Ring by throwing it into the volcanic Mount Doom in Sauron’s land of Mordor, the place where the Ring had been forged centuries before. Along the way he is followed by the creature Gollum who left his cave in search of his precious ring. The Ring is guarded by a fellowship of nine of the free peoples of Middle-earth: the four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, Aragorn lord of the Dúnedain, Boromir captain of Gondor, Legolas the Elf of Mirkwood, Gimli the Dwarf of Erebor, and the wizard Gandalf the Grey. Throughout the story each member of the Fellowship of the Ring meets challenges both from the outside world and within himself. Each member must face his challenge by finding inside himself what he needs to overcome it.
The Lord of the Rings gives three profound gifts to our time. All three of these gifts reflect Tolkien’s ability to recognize the mythic, enchanted quality of life: first, the recognition that the individual may be called upon to carry the weight of the whole, to bear the fate of the world; second, the reenchantment of the natural world, the recognition of the soul of nature which is filled with deep meanings and purposes; and the recognition of the battle between good and evil both in the external world and within each individual person.
Although The Lord of the Rings has many heroes, Frodo is truly a hero for our time. He is a humble character; he is not born a hero but grows into one. At the Council of Elrond, where the fate of the Ring is decided, Frodo takes upon himself the laborious task of the Ring’s destruction. The nature of the task is so great that no one could possibly impose it upon another, and it is only by Frodo’s willingly choosing to bear it that Middle-earth could be saved. Furthermore, Tolkien portrays Frodo as a hero who depends on others throughout his journey, and willingly accepts that help. Although the Ring was primarily Frodo’s burden he could not have accomplished his task without the help and support of others: a true friend like Samwise Gamgee, a wise mentor like Gandalf, a steadfast group of comrades like the Fellowship. It was the loyalty and courage of Sam that allowed Frodo to see his task to the end.
Tolkien’s reenchantment of the world is most evident in his portrayal of nature. The love of nature that was formed in his youth literally comes alive in his creation of Ents. Ents are tree-herders who resemble talking, walking trees. As the Ent Treebeard says, they have a deep love of nature that a human is not capable of. When asked the question of whose side he is on in the conflict with Sauron he replies,
I am not altogether on anybody’s side because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even the Elves nowadays.
In Middle-earth, nature has its own soul and purposes; it does not need humanity to be more than it already is.
Tolkien recognised that the conflict of good and evil has existed in the world throughout all of time. In The Lord of the Rings there are two very strong examples of this conflict. In his lifetime Tolkien saw how the new technology of the modern world began to overpower and destroy the beautiful countryside which Tolkien so greatly revered. Tolkien saw Sauron’s Ring of Power as a machine, something that took away the free will of humanity. The battle for Middle-earth was to reinstate that free will in both humanity and in nature.
The other great conflict of good and evil is in the parallel stories of Frodo and Gollum. Frodo is the angelic hero who is barely eluding the grasp of the Ring’s evil power. Gollum, or Sméagol as he was once known, was a hobbit whose mind was poisoned by the Ring for five hundred years while it lay in his possession. In his loneliness and his struggle he began to speak to himself, creating two separate personalities: Sméagol, the naive hobbit, and Gollum, the slimy creature enslaved by the Ring. Both Frodo and Sméagol fight to overthrow the temptation of the Ring; Frodo so that he may destroy it, Sméagol so that he may be free of the hold that the Ring has on his mind. However, it is only through their joining together, a compromise and interaction between good and evil, that the destruction of the Ring can actually be achieved. The struggle, or battle, of life is to recognise and overcome this evil present not only in the external world but also, more importantly, within ourselves.
The profound message carried by The Lord of the Rings is that each individual person on this earth has a task that they must fulfill. The world will provide obstacles but in the end it will be those obstacles that make us strong enough to complete the task we have taken upon ourselves. The task Tolkien unconsciously took upon himself was to give this message to the world in the form of his book. The Lord of the Rings renews a timeless tale that has lived throughout history, the story of the heroic quest of the individual human being. The Lord of the Rings truly is a mythology for our time. It reminds us of what we are each capable of doing.
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—. Telephone interview. 07 May 2005.
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