Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Raven, Messenger of Death

This morning, a huge Raven alighted on the giant Yew in the garden. One sees them in the neighbourhood from time to time, but I never saw one this close to the house. I immediately felt that it came here as a messenger from the Other Realm.

My stepfather died a few days ago after a prolonged and valiant battle with a terminal illness that prevented him from breathing. Despite the agony of fighting for every breath, he endeavoured to lead an active life as long as possible for my mother's sake. I seldom have witnessed a greater love than his for my Mother.

My Mum, although she loved her husband dearly, was not always kind to him. She is an individual who tends to explode when she is frustrated. Sometimes, she would try to apologise to him for one of her outbursts but he would tell her, 'I love you just as you are.' (She never apologised to me for any of her outbursts but I love her all the same, although I would not go as far as my stepfather... I really could wish for NO violent verbal outbursts in my life.)

My Mum married him when I was six years old, so he was a father to me most of my life. Had it not been for my biological father's intense jealousy, I probably would have had an easier time emotionally when my mother remarried. Nonetheless, the best way of perceiving the situation is to accept that I had two fathers and indeed, our society now has become more accepting of families that encompass more than the traditional nuclear unit of mother, father and the children of their union.

Every one deals with the reality of Death differently. Too many people tend to lash out at those who are closest to them. As is often the case, there was far too much drama and negativity at my stepfather's deathbed, but one hopes it will be forgotten and that ultimately, the survivors will draw closer to one another. I believe that it is misplaced anger in any case. People are angry with Death but they cannot confront that power directly, so they unleash their frustration and rage upon their loved ones.

Is it right to be angry with Death? Death is not our Enemy, although our own society views it as such and indeed, tries to market the illusion of immortality and eternal youth through the use of cosmetics, surgical procedures and other artificial aids. I have come to believe that Death is the natural result of a creature 'wearing out'. However much one patches the weak points in the body, sooner or later the spirit reaches a point where it must discard the old shell and move forward.

In literature, the weariness of Immortals has been recognised. What would it be like to live forever, watching loved ones and friends die, finding less and less that is new and exciting as the centuries passed and the antics of life became more and more repetitive? How many times could an Immortal fall in love? How long could an Immortal retain that sense of childlike wonder that is the best part of our psyches? I think eternal life would be a curse to any one other than a God for the Divine One would exist for a far greater purpose than his/her/its own amusement and needs.

To live forever, one would have to become a Sacrifice to the lives of all others, a perpetual servant of the Universe. Is not that what the Divine One is in essence? The creation and maintenance of Life is a task. One could set it in motion and then ignore it, I suppose, but how infinitely dull that would be? I cannot believe that the Divinity would choose Void and Nothingness over Creation, however 'old' the performance of the living became.

Death is a rite of passage, a farewell to this life. It leads to the Great Unknown.

Ravens long have been perceived as the messengers of Death. They were the companions of Odhinn, named Huginn and Munin, Memory and Thought. For the Celts, they were the messengers who traveled between the earth and the Otherworld. one of the ancient kings of the British Isles was Bran the Blessed. 'Bran' can be translated as 'Raven' and his head is believed to have been buried at the site of the Tower of London. The Ravens who live at the Tower are believed to represent the safety of the realm and so long as their presence endures, the land will endure.

The Raven, like the colour Black, originally a bird of great power and mystery, through the centuries acquired negative connotations in the same way that Death became an Event to be dreaded and feared, the Great Enemy of Life.

In fact, originally the Raven acted as a guardian of the Earth to obtain knowledge for the Gods. Death was nothing more than a Portal to the Otherworld and when any creature died, it moved on to another form or sphere of existence. This life and this world were but transitional phases in an existence that possibly might endure forever. It is the body that dies, not the soul.

The Raven is a very intelligent bird who can imitate the calls of other birds as well as the sound of falling water. Ravens have been known to echo songs, whether from a music box or an ice cream vendor.

My stepfather was Celtic and British in his heritage. Although he did not subscribe much to organised religion, he loved mythology and fantasy. He was a very spiritual man, albeit not a religious one in the ordinary Western sense of the word. His religion was Music and Art. He was a gifted tenor and acted as the soloist in a local church for decades. It was through his music that his spirit soared to Heaven, through Music that he communed with the Deity.

In the Silmarillion, Tolkien writes about the creation of Life as a symphony comprised of different voices whose songs are interwoven. The power of the Music is so great that every individual musical contribution can be embraced, however unique or different from the others...

In Lord of the Rings, Pippin and Gandalf have a conversation about Death, while awaiting a battle that could be the end of them.

Pippin: I didn't think it would end this way.

Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.

Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?

Gandalf: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Pippin: Well, that isn't so bad.

Gandalf: No. (Thoughtfully) No, it isn't.

Tolkien did not perceive the 'Lord of the Rings' as fantasy but rather as the natural weave of the tapestry of Anglo-Saxon tradition and lore had not Christianity come to the British Isles. He therefore incorporated many Celtic and Anglo-Saxon concepts into the work, including that of the 'lands in the West' to which the Elves set sail when they wearied of Middle Earth.

My stepfather loved Tolkien and it seems to me that, if any of the old lore of the journey after Death would hold true for him, it would be that of setting sail in one of the White Ships to 'Tir Na Nog' or the Lands in the West.

It is fitting that a Raven appeared to me today. I am far from the place where my stepfather died but my Mum is going to send me some of his ashes and I shall plant a little tree in the garden in his memory, even though I do not own the land myself. Before I saw the Raven this morning, I was in the garden, considering where I would plant the small tree as well as trying to decide the sort of Tree that would be most appropriate. Blackthorn perhaps, after the Raven's appearance. I have Oak, Ash, Birch, Rowan and Yew in the garden, but do not have Blackthorn. If my stepfather had been of a Mediterranean heritage, I would plant a Cypress for him but as an Irish Celt, he should have a Northern Tree.

These are the lyrics to 'Into the West', the song that ends Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy:

Lay down your sweet and weary head,
Night is falling,
You have come to journey's end.

Sleep now and dream of the ones who came before,
They are calling from across the distant shore.

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see,
All of your fears will pass away.

Safe in my arms, you're only sleeping.

What can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea, a pale moon rises,
The ships have come to carry you home.

Dawn will turn to silver glass,
Light on the water, all souls pass...

Hope fades into the world of night
Through shadows falling, out of memory and time.

Don't say we have come now to the end,
White shores are calling.
You and I will meet again.

You'll be here in my arms just sleeping.
What can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?

Across the sea, a pale moon rises,
The ships have come to carry you home.'

And all will turn to silver glass,
Lights on the water, grey ships pass into the West.

In Memoriam

Into the West from Lord of the Rings

There was a time when I wondered at the reference to 'silver glass' but now I think it is a reference to a mirror. After all, Jean Cocteau wrote that 'Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes and goes'.* (This is a line from Orphee, one of my favourite films when I was a child.) The way in which a mirror or looking glass was made was by adding silver to the surface of one side of a piece of glass. Mirrors are magical portals in myth and storybooks. When 'all will turn to silver glass', it is THIS existence on earth that becomes nothing more than a pale reflection of eternity and the world beyond.

*In the original: 'Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la mort vient et va.'

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