A dream came true for me recently, when I had the opportunity to co-present with my dissertation chair, Jacob Sherman, at the PCC retreat at Esalen Institute in late October. We spoke about the creation myths articulated by the 12th century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen and the 20th century fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, demonstrating some of the extraordinary parallels between their cosmogonies. Jake presents on Hildegard in the first half of the talk, while in the second half I retell Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, the creation myth he called The Music of the Ainur, before we open into a brief dialogue together.
We spoke in the darkness of Esalen’s dance dome, illuminated by medieval illustrations of Hildegard’s visions and contemporary paintings of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë created by the artist Anna Kulisz, as well as one painting done by Tolkien himself. Between our presentations we played one of Hildegard’s remarkable musical compositions, “Quia ergo femina,” performed by the Bay Area women’s choral group Vajra Voices (with whom I had the privilege to play the harp several years ago, when I was part of Cheryl Ann Fulton‘s medieval harp choir, Angelorum). This presentation was such a delight to give, not only because I was able to present with one of my teachers who has been such an inspiration to me, but also because I felt I was able to sink into a mode of storytelling which I greatly value and enjoy.
Cosmogonies of Imagination: Hildegard of Bingen and J.R.R. Tolkien
From the time we arrive on the scene, human beings have sought to understand our existence and the existence of all things through myth, symbol, ritual, and story. But where do our creation stories come from and how do they change? Are they the product of inspired individuals, the creation of entire communities, or something else? In order to try to get some traction on these questions, Jake and Becca will consider two extraordinary creation myths, one given by the 12th century visionary, prophetess, and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, the other by the 20th century philologist and fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Despite being separated by roughly eight centuries, both Hildegard and Tolkien produced creative cosmogonies that resonate remarkably with one another and remain peculiarly powerful today.
Many thanks to Chad Harris for filming, editing, and posting this recording.