Some months ago, I wrote the following deliberately archaic sounding post upon the Unchaining The Titan Facebook page:
“Men say the gods are dead but men are dumb like asses. Looking to the sky for the divine, we curse the gods and carve their tombstones. But the sky is not the home of the gods, they walk the earth like men. Never trust to a god that is not animal like man. They do not dwell in palaces like immortal kings but in living places like the mortal earth itself. They do do not walk among the trees but in the trees, just as they do not walk among men but in men.
This young foreign god from the Eastern desert lives only in the fantasies of fearful children who have been glutted on lies but never have their fill. He is not of the earth but only of the sky and of humankind. He may well be dead. He may have been stillborn for all we know, dead before he breathed his first breath. Never trust to a God that does not breath the air of this world like men. Regardless, if he looks he looks on indifferent and offers men nothing that they cannot give themselves. Why pray for that which is within your power to grasp?
The old gods are not dead, that is certainty. They are in the angry trees and the indifferent mountains and the rising waters and the poisoned skies. They are in the earth which opens its jaws to swallow us whole like the Jonahs that we are, fugitives from the gods and the truth. They have not died though we are killing them. Ecocide is Deicide. They have not gone. Soon they will step down from the mountains and out of the trees and the waters and they will crush us beneath their heels like weeds, cast us from their dwellings like unwanted hounds. And we will deserve it. For they are of the earth like we are, but we have forgotten much that should never have been lost. When the waters rise and the sun melts our flesh and the rain poisons our crops and the jaws of earth consume us, dumb men still will argue whether or not these forces be gods or accidents. But it will not matter. Only to the fool will it matter and the fool is not to be listened to.
Those of us that live in this age, this age of wheels and iron and machines that have become our masters, we have been born into an explosion and lived our entire existence within it. We have known nothing but growth and seen nothing but expansion. We ride the wave of power and think never of it slowing. But in the aftermath of an explosion is a great decline, wherein all that was once powerful and afire is revealed to be desolate and laid to waste. The aftermath has not yet come, but it is inevitable. A man need only look to history to see the recurring pattern of explosive expansion and decline. But men these days are dumb like asses. Like asses we trundle on, seeing naught nor thinking neither. Distracted by false lights and shiny trinkets, we trundle on down the mountain into the slow hungry grave of empire and empires asses.
All signs now point to an impending collapse and the eyes of waking Men should not be blind to these signs. The population grows, the sea grows, the need for energy grows, the pile of waste grows, the animals decline, the food supplies decline, the freshwater supplies decline, cultural diversities decline, mental wellbeing is in decline, physical health is in decline, the bonds of community are broken. All is broken. If you would not despair, nor give in to false optimistic delusion, then maybe you might ride the storm. A storm is not to be fought, remember that well. Neither can a Man take down the nameless forces that dictate his existence. Remember the fate of Ahab. But Ahab rode the storm until his end, as is fit for a Man of worth. He may have been a fool in the spring, but he was relentless in the storm.When all that remains is decline and despair and broken delusions, lift your eyes from the ground and walk with the old gods again in the storm as your ancestors did. Men do not bow to their gods like slaves, but rather they walk amongst them. And when the gods send storms, do not fool yourself into thinking you can outwit the rains or shout down the winds, but do not go easy into the grave you have dug.
June 24, 2015. Dublin.”
At times, for a variety of reasons, I try to write in what I call The Language of Epic. This was one of those times, and it seemed to resonate with readers. I’ve gotten some personal comments and private messages enquiring exactly what I meant by this passage and to whom I was referring when I used the term “The Old Gods”. Many that know me personally would be aware that I am not a man of religion. The details of other mens superstitious beliefs holds no interest for me and I am content to view the universe as a godless expanse of wondrously arranged matter. This is an oversimplification of course, but it serves the purpose. If asked, I would say I am atheist and leave it at that for the sake of brevity. But the truth is best served by expanding upon that brief dismissive answer.
Like many others I have often heard people describe themselves foolishly as “spiritual but not religious” and written them off as New Age Stereotypes. I do not bother with anything “spiritual” because it cannot be accurately examined or verified and thus it is impossible to know the truth of such matters. Such experiences are personal and do have value, but only so far as the person is concerned, for no two men will experience the same thing in the same way. But when I look back I can think of a very small number of occasions where I think I came close to what others might describe as a personal spiritual experience. I do not think on them too much, but I know that I was moved by whatever I felt in those moments. I maintain a materialistic worldview that does not factor in anything that is not natural or a part of the material universe, which is not a popular mindset among many who have shared their opinions on such matters. I look to science for knowledge and mythology for wisdom and where I can, I merge the two. But I will address the issue of my apparently hypocritical use of Pagan phraseology in describing my worldview by recounting one of the so-called “spiritual experiences” of this particular non-believer:
I was a young man of twenty years and an inexperienced soldier on a training exercise. It was well into the depths of the night when we set out on our patrol, yet we could see as clearly as if it were daylight by the light of the full moon reflecting off of the deep snow, which smothered the flat grassy expanse of The Curragh Plains. Usually this landscape was a lush green expanse, dotted with a thousand grazing sheep and local folk walking dogs or flying kites. It always reminded me of a desert of grass. An Irish desert, animated with life, not barren and dry like the deserts of the East. But there was no such greenery to be found this night. This night we bore witness to the effect of winters frigid assault upon the land. We forced our heavy legs through a layer of crystalline snow which grasped at us up as far as our knees. Often I would find myself wondering what it was that supported my weight in the unseen world beneath that smooth white blanket of frost. Sometimes my footfalls were reassuringly solid, but other times I felt like a man walking upon a frozen lake that he could not see. At one point I thought I stepped on some sleeping bird or beast, huddled beneath the snow in restless sleep. My foot landed with a crunch and I thought I heard a faint squeal.
I was lead scout of Section 3 for this patrol and as such, I was approximately the twentieth man back from the front of our long shuffling line of thirty weary young men. Mainly my eyes scanned the distance to the left and right, checking for any signs of life or “enemy” activity, but when I took a moment to look to my front I saw the silver phantom breaths of twenty of my comrades, rising above their dark helmets to be swallowed by the indifferent sky. The moon was always there it seemed, no matter where you looked, huge and silently watchful. I may be misremembering, but I have never seen the moon so large and luminous as it was that night. We had had no sleep all night and very little rest. This was the last night of our weeklong exercise on the ground, and our bones had been feeling the effect of the snow and wind and cold. Our objective was to patrol the area surrounding The Curragh Camp and destroy an unknown enemy position, before regrouping and stealthily patrolling back into the Camp itself. When we saw the light of a car on the distant road we would drop to the ground in what little cover we could find and hide, unseen, until it passed us by. There were few cars out at this hour, it must have been 3 or 4 in the morning when we reached the road that leads into the Camp. From the concrete road we crossed the frozen plains, through dense tree-lines and across open fields and thorny ditches, until we saw Flagstaff Hill towering above us in the distance. The area around Flagstaff was much more suited to our covert activities than the wide flat expanse of The Plains, and so there was much more cover to be found, which was both reassuring and also inconvenient. Dense, solid cover is a soldiers best friend on patrol, but when it was combined with heavy snow it hindered our movements and sucked the heat from our weary limbs.
As we followed a ditch line towards Flagstaff, I saw the open hand of every man in front of me go up to the side of his head. If you’ve got your eyes open you can usually see a hand signal being given from far up the line before it ever gets to you, but there were always some who would be slower than others to relay the message. Some men can walk in a daydream and not give any thought to their present circumstances. This particular hand signal told us to stop and get into cover, which we did by crawling into some bushes and leaning against a bank of frozen earth. I don’t know how long we lay there, but it was long enough that I began to shiver. Eventually the message was quietly relayed down the line, from man to man: “Tripwire in the ditch line, eyes on the ground”. We stood and walked on, following the Section 1 lead scout away from the dangerous wire which had been connected to the pin of a flash grenade. I remember thinking that it was well concealed, and I was impressed that the lead scout saw the thin translucent strip of fishing-line against the backdrop of the snow. We knew we were close by now. The “enemy” wouldn’t waste a flash grenade unless they were in the area, so we opened our eyes a little wider and listened a little harder for any sign of their location.
Having my eyes so open would soon prove to be a mistake as the branch of a tree swept back into my face at speed and jabbed my right eye. It had got caught in the backpack of the man in front of me and sprung back with force. I’ve taken a number of shots to the face in my time, but none that left me swooning like this branch did. For a moment I was blinded, but I could not stop or call for anyone to inspect my eyeball, lest I revealed our position. I stumbled through the snow, which concealed uneven and treacherous terrain, half-blind and staggering like a drunk. The man behind me must have thought I’d lost the plot. Eventually I got my shit together enough to function with one eye open, until we stopped and found cover in a ditch line which wound across the hillside like a serpent. The lead scout had identified the “enemy” position, and was consulting the platoon commander for a plan of attack. I took this moment to consult my section commander, a Corporal, and got him to check my eyeball for blood or signs of damage. He’d done a first aid course so I thought he’d be some help. My right eye had taken the force of the branch full on and I could barely open my eyelid. It leaked so much water I could not grasp a hold of it with ease.
“I’m not a fucking surgeon, Begs. Can you carry on? Then man up.”
So I did.
We dropped our packs, and did a final check on our ammunition and grenades. Half blind and leaking fluid down one side of my nose, I checked off my gear like everyone else and readied myself for the mayhem that would follow. When our Corporal returned, he gave us a hasty briefing on the assault plan and we followed him through the ditch. We were concealed from the enemy as long as we stayed in our cover but we would have to break cover when the order to assault was given. I remember looking up at the stars with my one good eye in this brief quiet moment, and at the smooth layer of snow which spread out far into the distance below Flagstaff Hill. The snow seemed to sparkle and emit its own pale light, which illuminated the world in such ethereal and unfamiliar ways. Above it all was the cold giant face of the moon, bearing witness to everything and sharing nothing of its wisdom. The rifle in my hands had been a burden, the body armor strained my back into an uncomfortable contortion, but in this moment I was so invigorated by the rare winter landscape sprawling out around me that I took no notice. The frigid air stung my lungs as I breathed, like a good whiskey. My face was sensitive to every breath of air and falling snowdrop. I was in a heightened state of sensory experience and I could not explain it if I had bothered to try. This was good, this moment. There is much that I have forgotten in my life, things of great import which have affected me deeply, but I remember this brief frozen moment. The white light of the moon and the thousand sparkling lights in the snow, as though there were stars both above and below.
Men began to shout and run. Grenades exploded and gunshots surrounded me. We broke cover and ran over the edge of the ditch towards the enemy in teams of four men. One team would get down and fire on the enemy position while the other team ran through the open ground. At intervals of 100 meters the teams would exchange roles and in this manner we moved our section towards our foe. Fire and Maneuver. There was smoke everywhere, both ours and theirs. Eventually we overran their position, sprayed them with blank rifle fire and fake grenades, searched the “corpses” for intelligence and weapons and secured the position. At this point our platoon commander and section commanders gave us a brief moment of feedback on how the assault drills were performed and what we should have done better, before we regrouped, collected our discarded packs and continued the patrol back into the camp. It was only as I set out down the side of Flagstaff Hill that I seemed to notice the sun was rising. Clouds were gathering quickly on the horizon and the sky was beginning to turn white to match the color of the ground upon which we walked. It was a snow-sky, and more would fall before this day was done. My right eye was still useless and I was limping slightly from the weeks worth of activity, but I remember feeling good. It seemed as though the landscape was speaking. That sounds like shit but there it is. I thought I could hear the trees waking up to greet the sun.
As we ascended towards the tree line atop Semaphore Hill, somebody fucked something up and was made to crawl through the snow on their belly with all of their gear. I don’t know what they did or forgot to do in order to merit this punishment, but somebody always fucks something up. When somebody else fucked something else up shortly thereafter we were all made to crawl through the snow in order to punish his individual error. This is an example of how the military establishment uses Horizontal Honor as a means to train troops through the medium of shame. Collective Punishment. It was nothing we weren’t used to. By the time we made it into the Curragh Camp and felt the iced crunch of frozen concrete roads underfoot, the sun was well and truly arisen. The Curragh is not only a military Camp, but also a small civilian village. We passed the school as teenagers took their morning smoke outside their classrooms. We stopped traffic as locals drove along the narrow roads to get to work. We passed the shop as soldiers and civilians alike made their morning purchases. We were weary, hungry, cold, in pain, and in my case, still half blind. The attitude of the NCOs lightened up once we made it into camp. They walked along our line and made small talk, slagging us in good humor and waving the false promise of breakfast rolls in our faces. Our Platoon Sergeant had learned about my encounter with the branch and asked me if I had any eye-dea how stupid I looked with one swollen eye shut. I admitted that it wasn’t eye-deal. We took what little humor we could find in those days, poor as it might have been. He suggested that I put some snow in my damaged eye in order to ease the pain and flush out any dirt. I’m still not sure if he was serious about that or trying to wind me up.
Upon returning to our HQ building in the camp we were thoroughly debriefed and began to pack away our gear. The exercise was over and we would finally get a shower and a warm (barely) meal. But not yet. First there were a myriad of cleaning duties to perform. I went to get my eye checked out by a doctor along with two others whose injuries have escaped my memory. He gave me eye-drops and the rest of the day off. But we had a lot of gear to clean so, with one eye shut, I cleaned with everyone else, and remembered the fleeting moment in the snow the night before when all the world seemed to move with me.
You may laugh derisively to hear me talk about the landscape and the snow and the moon and the voices of the trees, but you didn’t experience it. It may seem strange to hear me describe it thus, but that night was possibly the closest thing to a spiritual experience that I have ever felt. I am a godless man. I do not worship at any alter nor do I believe the claims of those who assert the existence of any gods. But if there are gods, they spoke to me that night in our common language. I have never felt awe at the sight of Christian artwork or the Muslim Call to Prayers. The psalms do not move me and I care nothing for holy books of dogma. To my atheistic mind, the language of the gods is the language of the earth and sky and air. The light of the moon that sparkles in the snow with a billion tiny reflections, the owl hooting in the dark as the trees whisper to the wind, and the cold visible fog of a mans breath rising before his eye toward the stars in the clear night sky overhead. I have loved the experience of wild open nature since I was a small boy and have often been moved by the beauty of my homeland, but never to this extent. These natural processes, coupled with the surreal activities of conducting a military exercise, produced an experience in me that I cannot fully describe. I fail to master whatever words might relate it as it was to me. The closest word that I can sum up to describe the feeling is Awe. And awe is something that my cold mechanical mind has rarely had to process.
I have spoken in other posts about “The Gods” and “The Old Gods” etc. I have often used the parlance of the pagan to communicate my meaning because I find that it is much closer to relating my experience than any equivalent Monotheistic sentiments. But I am no more a pagan than I am a follower of Abraham. I do not believe in the existence of the “Spiritual” realm, and I do not care if it exists. It is something that can never be proven or even truly known, so I do not waste my time in probing it. The Old Pagan Gods are useful archetypal references upon which I can hang the ideas and experiences that I feel on a daily basis, but I do not pray to Thor when I hear the thunder, or Poseidon when I cross the seas. I sometimes speak like a pagan because I often think like I imagine that a pagan does, but that does not make me one of them, and I’m sure they would agree. If there is any “Higher Power” or “Hidden Mover” in this world, I consider it to be only the unseen forces of nature to which we are enslaved. The indifferent and indomitable power of the natural cycles of this planet and the universe through which it flies is something that I hold to be higher than man and mans desires. If a god did exist, he would never inspire me in the same way as the feeling of being out in the midst of nature does. The experience of natural process like snowfall at night and lightning is much more real and alive than the knowledge of what creates the snowflake and the lightning bolt, but both of these aspects play against each other to create a more complete appreciation of the world that we occupy. Humankind has mastered the lightning and made it our slave to do our work, but we could yet be destroyed by it. Every time we create some new technology to make living and prospering that much easier for us, we become less human. We have forgotten that we are an animal and subject to the malicious laws of animalkind. The Law of Claw and Fang. This is the law of instinct and experience, of being fully alive in the moment as an actor and not merely an observer. We are slowly being crippled by our genius, and it can only be so long until we pass the breaking point.
When I gazed out upon the frozen Curragh Plains on that night years ago, I was not awed merely by the beauty of the landscape or the aesthetic pleasure derived by my being amongst that surreal scene, but rather by those things coupled with an understanding of the many forces that conspired randomly to create the scene that played out before me and the way that I experienced it. My human intellect walked in hand with my animal senses and mated to create a moment of perfect experience and interconnectedness. This is what some call Zen, and others call mindfulness. A simple state of complete experience, of being totally in the moment. Giving oneself over to become as much a part of the earth as the moonlight in the snow. Theistic dogma has never evoked such a sensation in me, but the beauty of nature has. So the forces that animate the natural world are my gods, and they have no names, and they care not for the prayers of men.
October 5th, 2015.
*All photos were taken in the area surrounding the Curragh Plains by either myself or local photographers.