|Barrow by Dan Porter (Dark Mountain: Issue 19|
For the last six months I've been working as art editor and producer of the just-published Dark Mountain: Issue 19. I also contributed two pieces: an interview with philosopher and teacher Bayo Akomolafe and this extract from my new book After Ithaca, a collection of essays and memoir about mythos and cultural change that revolves around the four Underworld tasks of Psyche.
‘Only bitter fare here, my dear,’ said Mimi, handing us cups of creosote tea, as we climbed up the mud steps from the temescal. It was 11th November, la luna de los muertos, and we are in the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico. Francisco Ozuna, curandero, has built a temescal in the back of Mimi’s ranch, and today will lead a vigil through the night. We will make an invisible bridge between the dead and the living, he tells us, and bring ‘the powers of wisdom hidden in the dust’ to the surface.
Francisco had worked for several days on creating the small underground sweat lodge, shovelling red earth and constructing a roof and steps from mud and stones. That afternoon we had gone to the creek and gathered palos muertos, wind-dried stalks of hackberry, black walnut and agave, and curly mesquite wood from the desert for the fire. On the two flanking earth mounds were set huge bunches of marigolds Francisco found abandoned on the highway – the fire-coloured flowers offered on the Day of the Dead that grow abundantly in Mexico after the late monsoon rains. Then we drew a circle of ash and amaranth seeds around the temescal and the central fire. When evening came and the people gathered the ceremony began: the flat river stones were heated in the fire, then hauled out, brushed with juniper branches and carried into the chamber on a big spade.
Inside, the small space is exciting. The desert night is cold but under the earth where we've taken the hot stones, naked under moon- and starlight, the heat embraces you. The tea is bitter in your mouth, the osha root is sweet. We are silent and then sing and howl and chant until our bones shake. Afterwards we throw buckets of cold rainwater over each other and dance round the fire. Francisco chants all night. Mark sings beside him.
Modern people don't observe the dead: we shunt them aside with awkward funerals, and this ancestral doorway of the year, once observed throughout the archaic world, has become a children's party game. But indigenous people (Francisco is part-Apache, part-Yaqui) know the dead are part of the Earth. Once mourned properly they can assist the living, rather than hinder them as forgotten shades.
In Mexico, across the border, there is a tradition of honouring the dead. People go to visit the cemeteries with candles and cakes and sing songs and write the dead messages at this time. But on the American side of the border things are very different. In the town there are very silent groups who come to collect the dead from the mortuary where the ravens gather and cackle on the roof. From our apartment opposite, we sometimes see coffins being delivered from the trucks. There doesn’t seem to be much singing and dancing going on.
The marigolds’ name in Nauhatl is cempoalxochitl, and their vibrant colour represents the sun, which guides the dead on their way to the Underworld. The strong scent of the flowers attracts the spirits when they return to visit their families, helping them to find their way. Osha or bear root is traditionally used in Native American sweat lodges to purify the air as well the body. A bear medicine from the mountains, the root assists a shift into dreaming and connection with the ancestors.
I will remember this night, long after the story of why I was in this high desert fades. Rituals can burn into the memory like fire, open up a portal, so that your ears keep the sounds of a man digging the red soil with a shovel, the sensation in your feet as you climb down the oozy steps and change places with a tarantula, the feel of the fresh night air when you emerge. There had been hard invisible difficulties between us all leading up to the ceremony but when evening came what remains is Francisco laughing as I led everyone in a dance around the fire when things got a bit grim, how our car sloshed through vast rain puddles as we brought breakfast for those who had made the night-time vigil, and that we buried the ashes of a friend of Mimi’s who had been sitting on her bookshelf for a very long time.
I don’t remember it as a bitter time.
‘There is a crow who sits on my shoulder,’ said my lawyer father. ‘It is my conscience.’ And then he stared at his shoes in despair.
When he died, the crow came to me. You have to tell me everything, I said. About conscience.
The crow sat in the corner of my room in the travelling years when I lived on the edge of small towns in Europe and America. Silently, he observed me write my notebooks. And sometimes I would ask him a question. And he would put his head on one side and peer into the mysterious darkness of the void and declare what great law of conscience he located there.
You have to deal with the files with your name on, he said, and leave the rest.
When we embarked on the dreaming practice in Australia, it was as if all those files had blown open and everything that had been buried from our dark houses and histories came to be redressed: animals faced me in the slaughterhouses, children with metal teeth attacked me, friends and lovers lurched out of the shadows, seeking reparation. It would have been good to sit around a table and come to an understanding, but we soon found dreaming doesn’t work like that. Words and good intentions mean nothing, moves are all that matter.
After our long dialogues, Mark and I would go out into the backcountry, or down by the sea and watch the dolphins leap in the waves. Here now in the desert, we sit on the roof and watch the sun come up over black mountains, walk the creeks and arroyos, go with Mimi into the canyons, into the wild scrub as the day’s heat fades. We are learning the names and the meaning of the flowers in these dry lands, the tough, the spiny and beautiful, the bitter leaves and sweet-tasting roots of ceremony that help us face the journey.
The ritual of the temescal is there to burn out the dross you hold and cede it to the fire as fuel and then as ash to the ground. Ghosts can cling to you, the dead that have not been mourned. Some of these phantoms are yours and some are not. Some are parts of you and your lineage that need to die in order for the new to flourish. To mourn and bury the dead, so that they can feed the living and not haunt the Earth.
Only the elements of this Earth can transform these invisible bonds; only if you are connected to this Earth can you undergo that process and walk that path. Most would rather do the ritual without the suffering and endurance that it demands. For a long time, I did not realise why we were so assailed by ghosts and dreams of the past; then I realised I was in the place the ancient world knew as the Underworld, and it was not the stories or rituals of native America that would help me navigate it, but a memory of that book with a pink and green cover: The Legends of Greece and Rome. I needed a different lexicon to see and map its mythic territory.
Door of Hades
You go into the Underworld because the god in you lives in the darkness. To fulfil what some call destiny, the deliberate journey you make on this Earth, you have to go where no one wants to go. Once it was understood that human beings were incomplete unless they took a transformative journey in this place. It was a pact you made with time, with the gods, with the Earth, with the ancestors. In Europe these soul journeys once had collective maps but these were burned, the names of the territories were erased, the entrances to the initiatory caves filled with stones. And yet the people still had the desire to go deep and abilities within them to do this work. We were still being born.
The way into the Underworld is the path we are most loath to take. Because it demands you go backwards, into the past, against the flow, widdershins, into faery, into the moon, into the Other, into denial, into terror, into the void. Into yourself. And not the self you know, the one you don’t, the one you don’t want to know and have always pushed away, tried to hide and not invite to the Upperworld party.
As we sat with the dreaming practice, we were faced with the refuse heaps of our own lives, our families’ lives, our tribal lives, humanity’s lives, thousands of them, heaped like so many piles of ashes and broken cars, rooted by red-necked vultures and savage dogs, through corridors of forgotten files, managed by a clerk who has never seen the light of day and a concierge who bears you a grudge you do not understand.
Transformation of consciousness is the hard work of the Underworld. What you transform is the dark stuff, what is known as the shadow: everything civilisations keep throwing outside the city gates, hoping time will help it decay and disappear. Except it never does. Its poison seeps into the sewers of every settlement, into the minds of the powerful, into the terrors of the night.
Releasing the shadow means going through this rubbish heap, through the files the crow brings to your attention – not all of them but those with your name on – remembering what happened, making sense of it all, seeing the pattern, crying the tears of the forgotten, holding the hand of the terrified, of the lonely, the lost, it means shouting at zombies, at ghosts, being raped by Hades, mourned by Demeter. It means feeling the nightmares that woke you as a child and to keep feeling them until you stop shaking, until the dawn comes, until you are no longer afraid. It means finding a way in and out of the Underworld, because no amount of evangelising or prayer or good intention will wipe our human shadow away.
The shadow exists because no one has been a human being yet; not you, not me, not the man in the rainforest nor the priestess at Delphi. We have all been kind for a day. But living fully as human beings alive together with all our relations, the trees, the fish, the barbarians, the dead?
We have not done that yet.
Psyche and the map of stones
The love story of Psyche and Eros lies at the heart of The Golden Ass. And inside the metamorphic tale, like the final Russian doll inside its layers, you find the four initiatory tasks that Psyche is set by Eros’s mother, the goddess Venus. For her final challenge, Venus hands Psyche a box and instructs her to humbly ask Persephone Queen of the Dead for some beauty ointment, and to bring it back to her. Whatever you do, she is told, do not open the box. Psyche, as always, despairs, thinking that her own death is the only way to enter Hades. She climbs a hill intending to throw herself from the summit but a tower of stones speaks to her. He gives her specific instructions for entering and returning from the realm of the dead.
On your return you will be faced with three distractions, he tells her: an old man with a limp, another who clings to the boat, a woman who sits spinning by the shore. They all want your help. Keep silent and do not give it to them. And the tower then tells her where to find the entrance to Hades at the cape of Taenarum in Mani.
The territory of the underworld is well mapped by the ancient world, its rivers and lakes and fields. Poets have famously described it and what they saw on their guided journeys. But the Underworld is not a fictional place you can play with in your mind, it is a geography that exists alongside the waking one and you have to approach it with steely caution and a cartographic eye. You can fall into katabasis by accident, your mouth full of ashes instead of obols. Shades cling to your boat as you cross. You have already forgotten the stones’ instruction. Or you don’t know where to start. For aeons seekers have sought knowing in the place of unknowing, a place where you spend half your life in darkness, your dreams. So I began looking for the entrance to Hades in my dreams. It did not take me long.
When we returned to Britain from Australia, my dreams had shifted their focus, some of them sparked by visits I made as we were searching for places to live in Oxford: woods, public talks, old buildings. One night in a hotel room, I dreamed that Britain was covered in a greenish glow that was called the seal light. It was like a collective miasma that hung around the edges of the islands. Then a dark ancestral being who was in charge of the burial mounds of England told me about ‘proper burial’. Things need to be buried at the proper depth, he told me, to be returned to the earth. Proper burial requires returning everything to its natural place and not keeping anything or anyone stuck in some personal memory locker. This keeping of essences stuck in a place or time was creating ghosts. This included our own. The seal light was making the whole land sicken.
Sometimes it felt, as we walked out in search of a home, as if the country itself, obsessed by its own history, was some kind of burial ground in need of a ritual return.
One winter’s night in Oxford I dreamed I was at a suburban railway station. The conductor is a black man who says, ‘I don’t care whether you come on this train horizontally or vertically, this train is only going to NIMROD.’ The train is like the ‘A’ train to Brooklyn. I see people returning from Nimrod. All the seats in the carriages are ripped up, very few people have come back. They are all tattered and bashed up, fragments of people. I realise the train had gone beyond Nimrod into someplace else.
I am trying to cross the border and get to Mexico but am waylaid on the platform by a host of gay men. One is carrying a woman’s dress. He winks at me and says, ‘I’ve been to Nimrod and been a woman’. I have lost my passport and am late for my connection.
In the second part of the dream I am running with a band of people, following a shallow watercourse that flows down a corridor. At the end of the corridor is a little room and the sea lying beyond a window. The room is full of sand and I can’t get to the sea. It is in a 1930s building with a slightly abandoned feeling.
I have this dream after going to a lecture given by a Native American from the Ojibwe nation from the eastern seaboard of the United States. It’s a strange meeting, held in the Quaker House in the middle of Oxford. Like many Native Americans the speaker has a look of supreme endurance on his face, as he surveys the timid English crowd in anoraks. One drop of pure water can clean a whole swimming pool of darkness, he declares, and holds up some plants – white sage and osha root which would assist us in overcoming the world of suffering. Someone asks in a small voice about reincarnation.
His stern face relaxes at the point and he laughs: ‘We call it recycling,’ he says. ‘We’re not going to be recycled, we’re going home.’ And then he throws his head back and sings a chant that shakes the foundations of the well-behaved church rooms.
‘What am I doing here?’ I say irritably to Mark in the practice. I feel I am wasting my time with these corridor and train people. I would rather be going to Mexico and meeting the ancestors. ‘You can only recycle paper so many times before it turns into fragments,’ I say. ‘Before it falls apart’.
And we stared at each other in horror.
Nimrod is the mythical emperor who built the Tower of Babel. His astrological tower was destroyed by the sky god Jehovah, along with his people’s ability to communicate with each other. Up until then everyone on Earth spoke the same language. All Nimrod’s people dispersed across the globe because they no longer spoke the same language and could no longer collaborate with one another. Everything fragmented. The Babylonian mystery tradition that begins with this mythical figure, half man, half dragon, underpins many of the dualist religions that concern themselves with punishment in an afterlife hell.
At first in these dreaming practice years, I thought I needed to save people who were stuck in the Underworld until I realised that my actions never saved anyone. I just became waylaid, trapped in the small locked rooms of abandoned houses. I was stuck in other people’s stories about their past, other people’s secrets, other people’s houses, other people’s hells, when I needed to move out of these places. I had many dreams of rescuing soldiers stuck in time, caught on the wire, visiting hospitals, going into prisons, all sorts of grim places in history. I met people who were stuck at eternally repeating dinner parties because of their shame. Dead mentors would come and tell me to instruct the living to let them go. Dead children would ask their mothers not to weep for them anymore. And sometimes I would tell the living these things. But no one listened.
In the Underworld years, I saw dead mothers who were trapped in photographs. I met men who wore dead men’s coats to borrow their power. I saw people hang on to their dead because they wanted the pity of others, because they could not stop raging, because they were full of guilt.
But like everything else in the Underworld this was about learning discrimination. You cannot be a go-between at the behest of the dead if you want to go home. At some point you realise that no one, dead or alive, is helping you leave. You have to get out yourself. Where everyone goes after life is a mystery. But one thing was clear, where you did not want to be heading was Nimrod and the great recycling depot.
Realm of ashes
Sleeping in my mother's old studio in London under the eaves in an attic room years before the practice, I dreamed about crossing the line of death. Mark and I covered our faces in ashes and tricked the border guards. As we crossed I fell into the ocean and the great crab mother embraced me in her giant claws, a huge embrace of love, and then she let me go. As I flew into the air I saw a line of people floating towards a spiralling tunnel of light and then elsewhere a blue square surrounded by gold high in the sky. I knew that was where I was going. So I went.
I found myself in a place where everyone understood each other without speaking. We worked together in small groups of four creating extraordinary things. It was a place of beauty and abundance; we lived in straw houses on a flowering hillside that reminded me of a valley we used to visit in Ecuador in our travelling days. The difference was that unlike my earthly life there was great joy and harmony between the other beings and myself. We were in complete telepathic communication with each other. Why did I leave? I left because I went to an interdimensional place like a silvery lake and met a Mexican seer on its pale sandy shore, who told me about time and about the place of time called Earth. I was so excited you could measure yourself in terms of time, I said: I want to go there. And so I did.
You come because of your great desire. You come because you are curious. You come because of the challenges, because of the experience and the exchanges and the beings you will meet here. You come for all sorts of reasons that only in your soul’s language you will understand. Some of these reasons are to be found in dreams. But you only find these clues if you don’t get stuck in the realms of suffering. The dimension of the Earth is not difficult because it is physical but because of a human limbo realm, the world of shades, that seals it in a greenish glow and makes it hard for us to leave. There are myriad stuck places, astral realms, underground stations, full of beings who have spent their lives conducting the big bands of the Underworld, impresarios of side-shows, the sweepers of the corridors. Hordes of people that are kept in limbo in these underworld cities that enmesh you in their intrigues. But if you want to get out of the wheel of karma, out of the zone of fragments, you have to be smart and not get waylaid.
If you start helping in the Underworld it means you are not doing your own proper burial. Proper burial means you have to bury your mother with honour, you have to atone for your father’s sins. You have to bury your former life at the proper depth, give up the illusions held by your righteous ego. You have to shed your snakeskins, and collect all the fragments of yourself jettisoned in the realms of time. And then when you have finished your tasks, you have to dance, be light, merry, be in life. You can never really talk to the dead in these places because the dead do not listen. They do not care for you. What I wanted to do was speak with the ancestors who know how to be whole, I didn’t want to live like a ghost, a fragment, a zombie with a seal light around me. I wanted to go home.
In the town we wait in the hot afternoons in our apartment, naked, watching the muslin curtain billow in and out in the desert wind. Everything grows quiet at these times. In these intense temperatures, you grow to love the water, climb long distances over rocks to find hidden waterfalls, swim in the mountain pools with little garter snakes, wake early at sunrise to visit the cool canyons full of morning glory and cardinal flowers. It is a state of expectancy you savour, never knowing what might demand your sudden attention, except that when it does, you recognise the moment.
In the desert hotel the Queen of the Night lived in a pot and grew long arms that spread over the painted floorboards of Carmen’s room. On the night of her blooming Greta, Mark and I met and lit small candles there, beneath her six great flower heads, and held three of them in our laps, inhaling the immense fragrance. We talked about flowers. Greta was a herbalist and sometimes stayed downstairs in Peter’s studio where we had met her one day as she was hacking up ocotillo roots. Mostly however we sat in silence. The windows of the hotel room were covered in wire, so no moths could come and visit the plant. But the Queen had other visitors: her fragrance wafted all the way down the dark corridor and entered into the kitchen where there was a party going on for a poetry reading that was happening in town.
People came and went out of the room. Mark licked the nectar that dripped from a milkweed flower that hung above the Queen of the Night. Look, he said, it tastes just like honey. Come and try. Nobody did. Some people fled the room, some stood awkwardly and asked awkward questions: Why were we holding a vigil? Why does the plant only flower for one night? But when the poet came into the room, she took up position by the open window and, laughing, told us a story about the Mayan goddess who held a competition to see who had the most beautiful vagina in the universe (it was won by a human woman, helped by a hummingbird who gave her some feathers). ‘I’m going to paint the goddess in the underpass one day,’ she said. ‘This town needs her.’
For a whole evening we sat in the room with the flowers. The poet entered the room and visited the Queen of the Night. She was a lovely poet and the world needs her. It needs the goddess’s beautiful vagina. It needs the fragrance of an insignificant plant that puts everything into something beautiful, even though it only lasts one night.
Under the stars of a beautiful night in America the poets came to the pomegranate town, the dreamers and the visionaries. Some of them still lived here: they were quieter than they used to be but they still lived here. They came for the dark blue dreaming stone that lives in the hills among the veins of gold and copper. They came for a different sound that sang out on the edge of the Roman Empire.
The Mayan people sometimes call the United States the Land of the Dead but it’s not just the dead that live here. There is life everywhere if you look, and beauty and kindness. These small things do not count in the world that only counts money, but they count for everything in the Underworld. I know this because when I have been down on my luck, it is the small acts of beauty and kindness that have made everything worthwhile.
It is what stops the world being destroyed.
The poets store up the best of these things. It’s not just the words they are doing this with. It’s their lives, as they move through this world, through time, a transformative force they carry having been into the Underworld and back. It’s the spirit in which they do things, the way that the poet entered that room like a moth and pollinated the flower. It was the dance we all did holding the huge flowers in our laps. In the room this vibration glowed and filled us with an encounter that would last the whole of our lives.
At midnight we left the room. We found the kitchen deserted. There were bowls of chips and empty glasses and a desolate feeling that parties have when they are ended. The night wind blew through the screen door. We kissed each other goodbye and went out, going our separate ways. And when the sun rose the Queen of the Night closed her petals quietly in the desert hotel.