The Big Picture (2) : a portrait of the archer

If we’re going to set off in search of the spiritual – as seen in humanity’s ‘internal pictures’, we need to have a more modern definition of what the ‘spiritual’ actually is…

Imagine we are reading a paragraph in an absorbing book – something like the image below. Normally, our brains would assemble a sequential stream of characters into recognised words, then meaning. The meaning would be gradually tuned as we read into the context of the whole.

Clever stuff… Our minds equip us well to interact with the information sources in our world – some of which could kill us, if wrongly interpreted: think of a traffic crossing. We have a life-imperative to protect our organic existence, but it does not mean that, beyond the needs and duties of this lifetime, it was ever truly our home.

Back to the paragraph in our book. Imagine if, instead of that sequential, character-by-character interpretation of the language, we looked at the set of words and suddenly sat back with surprise as the whole thing sprang into vivid life in front of us!

Now, everywhere we look, and from every angle, the deepest meaning of the text becomes vital; and with a force that simply leaves no room for it being wrong…

That’s what seeing with a ‘spiritual eye’ is like. The sense of ‘me and it’ is lost in a glorious, calm involvement with what had been the object of our vision – and this can be the whole world. What’s happened is the sudden and miraculous removal of the learned idea of a separate entity for me and it. Instead, there is a seamless and deeply personal absolute knowledge that we are seeing the truth of where we look.

The experience is completely real. It means the state we have entered is a higher one. By that, we mean that it came first… It is a parent of the state we are now in.

The state we normally live in, this lesser ‘ordinary’ consciousness where understanding comes through slow absorption of ideas, is the product of a natural process as we enter life and become in-volved with our new world.

It is essential that we do this; that we experience this biblical ‘fall’ into the denser world of organic matter. Why this is so is a much deeper answer, one requiring a more developed vocabulary for the shape of our existence. The brain cannot fully comprehend it, but it can string the bow… What happens next requires that we have an arrow.

Our personal power in life comes from having a strong ‘identity’ with ourselves… and this is a picture of self. This self, and its interactions with the world, are gradually assembled into a composite which solidifies with a psychological ‘whoosh’, somewhere around our seventh year of life. From then on, this ‘me’ becomes the core of how things are felt, and how we take things forward. It is the personality; but it is built on many, smaller units of ‘me’ that are part of a process of deeper involvement with the world.

The prenatal infant does not know itself to be separate from mother. But ask any mother and they will tell you the poignancy of knowing something that your body has ‘made’ will have to leave your warmth to achieve its life, separated. The mother knows the infant is not her, the infant does not… until, mirroring the deepest spiritual tales from our collective past, it is born, a stranger in a strange land.

Instantly, there is it and the world. The most beautiful state of Oneness, paradise, has been lost… And only the most magnificent human potential could justify that event.

Mother is there, of course. Her breast and her warmth are everything to the child, but they are not the exact match to her needs as when in the womb. There begins a process of not just separation, but of ‘lack’, especially orally when there is not enough milk for the infant’s hunger.

From these early events is formed a set of relationships with the new experience of independent life. The infant is always present to its experience, so everything is seen in a relationship to itself. The whole of the infant’s life will be patterned by these formative experiences.

One way of examining this development – which is mainly psychological – is the technique of ‘Object Relations’: one of the tools of modern psychology, and one that finds itself most closely allied with certain mystical schools – though not by intent. An understanding of Object Relations will help reveal the pictures formed during this first stage of our-selves.

We are not attempting regression, here. The goal is to unite the adult mind’s power with the early and potent feelings of being human. We do this because there is a correspondence between those early events and the patterns of experienced energy we find when can touch our own essence.

It is no accident that the ability to form good mental images – visualisation – has always been one of the key tools of spiritual development. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is most famous for his exposition of building living images of oneself ‘imitating Christ’. These techniques are truly ancient, and have been the tools of ‘priests’ throughout history. To get what we want and hopefully need, requires a ‘clear picture’ of the desired state, even if it is partial.

But there is a problem when it comes to visualising a higher spiritual state. The mind cannot conceive of something higher than itself. However, we can assemble a small armoury of self-tools certain to take us at least part of the way to the spiritual eye spoken of in the opening paragraphs. It’s time to make our arrow…

In the next few weeks, we can follow an overview of the Silent Eye’s method for:

  • Understanding the most important of the early pictures of self, and how they became the foundations of ‘us’.
  • Examining the aspects of ‘ancient wisdom’ that correlate most closely with the pictures.
  • Reconciling the adult and powerful self with the fears of the infant, experiencing a ‘washing away’ of that early anxiety, thus freeing the energy inherent in the early states that were so close to Oneness.
  • Finding the separate ‘faces’ of that Oneness, and forming a new picture of each, as the Sufis do, as Intimate Friends on our deeply personal path.

Equipped with the above, we truly notch our arrow into the taut and harmonic string of a mighty bow, and, standing tall, fire it into the heavens of our own sky.

We might even get an answer to this focussed message. But its nature may surprise us…

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The Big Picture (1) : life and the image

We don’t live ‘in the world’… an outrageous thing to say, and yet it’s true. Well, if we don’t live in the world, where do we live?

We don’t live in the world; we live in a picture of the world… the ‘big picture’ of the blog’s title. If we actually lived in the world, we would go insane within a very short time in trying to process the near infinite information that the real world throws at us every second of the day. Nature has helped us with this; millions of years of evolution have honed and perfected this ‘signal processor’ that we call the brain.

Instead of losing our minds – itself a telling statement – we have evolved to have, at the pinnacle of our personal organisation, a sophisticated ‘summary engine’ that can be taught what’s important to us so that it can be extracted from the ‘flow’.

When we were children, staying alive was very important; as was staying close to ‘mother’, who protected us. The knowledge and methods of this stage of our lives are buried deep in our so-called ‘subconscious’, where they protect us by becoming ultra-fast reactions based on recognised patterns of events coming at us – like a hot coal that once burned us, or the initial taste of mother’s milk, our original food of life that went hand in hand with her deep and ‘most warm’ love.

The human being’s consciousness is made up almost entirely of reactions… and rightly so. In a potentially hostile universe, these reactions operate at lightning speed to protect and preserve us. They also give us fear, filling us with chemicals that speed up our reactive potential. They can also give us pleasure… to the point of addiction.

(Above: within us we have a kind of stage, where the events of our lives are turned into an ongoing story, a play. Image by the author)

Growing up to maturity in a stable way is not a trivial process. No wonder we value the stability of the bionic machine that protects us. That this reactive engine is the pinnacle of us is marginally untrue. We also have a strange other creature sitting high up there at the top of our personal organisation.

Reading this, you can, at any time, break away from these lines of language being interpreted by the equivalent of millions of lines of ‘brain code’ that sift and refine what the meaning is. You can break away from this information stream and ask yourself, ‘Mmm what do I think of this?’

The part of you that has this power of separate thought from the general engine of survival, pain and comfort is the self. The self is a very strange entity that arose in our internal experience once we had stabilised our survival. Essentially, the self was what survived in conscious memory from moment to moment within the sea of experience. We became attached to it, for it not only carried memories vital for survival, it also gave us a sense of worth. Because it was always there, we grew fond of it. With its help, we could take greater autonomy in our lives, choosing certain directions based, positively or negatively, on pleasure, pain or… even values.

Values are interesting. They dont feed us, they don’t frighten us, yet we have learned that they are important. Some humans don’t spend much time on values, but anyone brought up with love and affection is likely to have a small treasure-trove of culturally inherited values from their loving parents and those who have influenced them most strongly in their lives.

We might say we have an unusual instinct for the ‘good’, beyond any need for it to be linked to our survival… or even wellbeing.

Our higher levels of organisation – our minds – contain the most sophisticated abstract representations of our world and our selves. These representations are in the form of interior pictures. They may contain all the information our senses can provide, but they are still pictures. They are not the reality of the present. They are that reality seen through pieces of our history, as though through an evolved lens.

The nature of those pictures, and their relationship to any quest for the reality of our selves, is the subject of this series of posts. It’s a series I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I feel the time is right and appropriate to this felt sense of an ‘end of the age’. My belief is that things are indeed ending, but only to clear the way for the depths of human potential to be further revealed. Because of the way we are made, the real changes need to come from a psychological and spiritual perspective. Only an awareness of this dimension of ourselves will open up our possible future…

(Above: The Tree of Life, a representation of progressively higher levels of consciousness. Image by the author)

The idea of images being central to our mental and emotional existence is not a new one. Ancient systems of metaphysics used diagrams like the Tree of Life, above, to illustrate the relative place of the actual world and our consciousness within it. The lowest of the ten ‘spheres’, above, is Malkuth, which is the body and its raw awareness. But our composite consciousness of the world begins at the next higher level – the purple sphere of Yesod above it. One of the key meanings of Yesod is ‘The Image’.

The story of how our deeply personal ‘way of seeing’ developed is the story of how our experiences formed relationships between ‘me’ and the world. These started very simply, but powerfully, with the essential relationship between the infant and mother. In the first two years of life are to be found the essential lenses of our seeing that pattern the rest of our lives.

In the next part, we will examine this early state – not from a perspective of regression, but with a view to blending our early perceptions with the adult discrimination we now possess. The mixture can be a fiery one… But the flames of self-discovery can put an entirely new light on our habits, our fears, our joys and the potential for our consciousness to go much further than we currently envisage.

©Stephen Tanham, 2021.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, A journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

Deepest Night

We are creatures of cycles; the smaller fitting within the increasingly larger. We may have little conception of the very largest, but the effects of that level of creation trickle down to remind us of our true natures…

(750 words, a five-minute read)

We live in cycles within cycles. Every day, we wake up to a period of brightness which is essentially the same experience as the last. Yet we do not see this ‘endless’ stream of days as being without structure. Our days fit, seven at at time, into weeks. Weeks fit into months, whose length has been played with by powerful rulers over the course of our various societies and civilisations. The ability to manipulate such months is limited by the fact that there is, finally, a physical barrier – the year – to remind us that some things are not subject to our whims, but objective in their nature – that is, they have their own being, outside of our mind’s attributions.

The absolutes are very special, because they were here before we were; and they remind us that they had a hand in our creation.

It is of great importance for us to collide with objective things. It reminds us that we are creatures and beings that have been created by our environment. There may have been other forces involved in that creation – even in its nurturing – but we can clearly see that we are evolved creatures possessing a potentially high degree of intelligence.

We can define intelligence in many ways. My two favourites are that intelligence is the ability to abstract a problem. This goes hand in hand with the other: to play ‘what if’ in the mind. The ability to ‘run the tape’ to see what might happen if we stay on the present course of action is, literally, a life-saver.

The year can be said to summarise the forces working with us to further this intelligence. In the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of the Earth, there are four observable seasons, each with its different character and ability to generate the mysterious things we call emotions.

Emotions might be said to be a movement of energy within us, reminding us that we are not just cyclical biology and desires, we also are capable of experience related to invisible causes. With training, we can develop a certain control over the effects of emotions. We can use intelligence to question their effects, for example. They are often vivid, but sometimes destructive and weakening. We can learn, through our powers of self-observation and the intelligence of ‘what if’ to spot the good and bad patterns as they are arising, and before they overwhelm us and impel us to negative action.

The good emotions reflect their energy into our higher faculties. For example, they empower creativity. They are also used in gradual spiritual awakening, where the stale egoic cycles of experience are broken though…to find a fresh new world of the Self.

In all cycles there are peaks and troughs. We enjoy the green vitality of spring, before surrendering to the colourful decline of outward life known as the autumn. The rapidly declining light heralds the winter. Within this cycle, two days are of special importance. They are the Solstices – the longest and shortest days. In late June is the Summer Solstice. The 21st December 2020 marks the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day and the longest night.

But that longest night might just be the greatest gift of all, since it marks not only the switching of the light to increasing length and brightness, it also can also mark the emptying of our ordinary selves.

Perhaps you will joins us in the Silent Eye in taking your candle, unlit, into a real or imagined dark place and holding in your mind and heart an emptying of your self as the astronomical moment of the solstice arrives. Then light the candle and see that, although it is small in the darkness, its light travels out, unresisted, into the world.

Hold the thought that, because you have used this to empty yourself, you are now a vessel of consciousness which can be filled to its maximum potential.

With that, smile and go happily into your deepest night.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of personal being.

The City and the Stars (9 – End) : The most peaceful place in the world

The conclusion of the Silent Eye’s extended workshop to Orkney. A visit to the neighbouring island of Rousay. A sad disappointment and a wonderful surprise. (1300 words, a twelve-minute read)

(Above: a modern reconstruction of a Neolithic farmer felling a tree with a hand-made stone axe)

For our final day, we were off to the Island of Rousay..

I’ve written, elsewhere, about what it’s like to drive a car full of passengers, backwards, down a steep ramp towards a ferry which should be ‘down in the gloom, somewhere’… Then take a twenty-minute journey to a neighbouring island, only to do it all again and return at the end of a the day…

(Above: Looking back at the Orkney Mainland from Rousay)

On our previous trip to Orkney, in 2018, we had visited the island of Hoy, across the central Scapa Flow waterway.

(Above: the vastness of Scapa Flow, the central waterway of the Orkney archipelago)

It had provided a necessary contrast to the Orkney mainland, and reminded us how central was the constant presence of navigable water to the ancient peoples who lived here.

For this trip to Rousay, the ferry crossing was a shorter one, and the purpose of our visit was twofold: to examine a chambered tomb within what had been a Neolithic farming community; and to carry out a coastal walk to a ‘Broch’ – a peculiarly Scottish defensive structure that was often found at the heart of prosperous Iron Age settlements – usually close to the sea.


(Above: the information board for Blackhammer Chambered Tomb, a Neolithic sacred building)

The first of these was Blackhammer Chambered Tomb, built by Neolithic farmers over five thousand years ago, and uncovered thanks to the work of Walter Grant and Graham Callander (see image below).

In 1936, Walter Grant, a local whisky producer, and National Museum director Graham Callander dug into a mound of heather-covered stones to reveal Blackhammer. Inside they found human remains and objects possibly left as offerings to the dead. The chambered tomb was remarkably intact.

(Above: the mound into which Grant and Callander dug now forms the ‘dome’ of the tomb, just as it was in the 1930s. All original photos by the author)

Blackhammer is one of 15 such tombs on Rousay, and in use at the same time as the Ness of Brodgar sites now being excavated. There was an important difference, though – and that was why we wanted to visit.

(Above: the interior of Blackhammer from the virtual tour- see notes below)

Here on Rousay, the chambered tool served the needs of a simple farming community, and we felt it would allow us to understand their spiritual beliefs, which may have subtly differed from the ‘priestly’ community around Brodgar.

Excavations in the 1930s revealed two adult male skeletons, fragments of animal bone, a bone pin, a polished stone axe of plain grey-green stones and some Neolithic pottery. It is not known whether these were ‘grave goods’ buried with the body, or ceremonial objects used during burial rites.

The Blackhammer burial chamber has seven compartments and is cocooned within the heather-covered mound, less than a mile from the sea. Dry stone walling arranged in a herringbone pattern runs around its outer edge. The tomb’s construction was a massive undertaking for local farmers during the Neolithic period, when most of their time was spent providing food for their families. It reveals the important place that the community’s ancestors retained in daily life.

(Above: the internal structure of the Blackhammer Chambered Tomb. Image from the information board)

The above schematic shows the internal structure of the Blackhammer Chambered Tomb. The elements are: (1) Entrance Passage; (2) Blocking Stones; (3) A set of ‘stalled chambers’ for the remains of their ancestors; and (4) A later wall which may have been created following encroachment on the original tomb)

(Above a stone axehead and flint knife – the latter whitened by heat-treatment)

Sadly, when we got there, the site was closed… We knew the second of our visits would provide ample justification for the ferry ride, so I photographed the information boards, which have been used above to illustrate the site.

(Above: through the reinforced glass roof, the start of the interior passage)

We were able to clamber up the mound to peer down through the roof (above), giving some idea of what lay in the interior, but, other than the mound itself, that was it.

But then, on the way out, I noticed that the ‘closed’ sign had a QR code on it. If you’ve not used one of these before they are amazing things. They link to a website related to what you’re looking at, and sometimes even contain a virtual-reality tour.

We couldn’t get a phone signal at Blackhammer, and the rest of the day was full, so I forgot about it… Until I was writing this blog! What I hadn’t expected was that the online link would work with a photo of the QR code just as well as being there. Please try it!

(Above: If you point your phone’s camera at the above QR code (top right) it should open a new link and take you to an excellent virtual tour – from which the two images, below, are illustrations)

Given the above, I’m content to move on. What happened next was quite sublime…

(Above: By the small car park and a long way above the site, this sign entices you to make the effort!)

A few miles along the coast road of Rousay lies a historic site information board. You are here, says the small, red sign on the photo. But ‘here’ is a long way above the ocean, and Midhowe lies close to the sea. I wasn’t too excited. Covid had put paid to any chance of a visit to anything ‘with an enclosed interior’. We knew the risks when we arrived.

The sad thing was that, at the foot the cliff, perched above Eynhallow Sound – with its famous ‘roaring’ tidal race – are two of Rousay’s most spectacular ancient monuments.

Midhowe Chambered Cairn is among the largest Neolithic tombs in Orkney. It was built 5,400 years ago. Neighbouring Midhowe Broch was the centre of a much later Iron Age settlement between 200 BC and 100 AD… And this latter site was open.

We made a slow and careful descent of the steep path, each lost in our own thoughts. We had seen so much during the past few days. This day had a slightly surreal feeling to it…

(Above: the 1930 hanger was created to protect one of the world’s greatest archeological treasurers. It was closed, of course, and the wooden shutters were pushed to, but not all of them bolted…)

The vast hanger that houses the 33 metre Neolithic Cairn was closed and locked. The windows were shuttered, but not all the shutters were locked into place. With a gentle pull (later reversed to restore their original state), several were happy to open. For a moment, I was reminded of the church at Nigg, and Sue Vincent’s famous trick of standing on tiptoes and pointing the camera at the glass, to see what the camera might just capture. The windows here weren’t as high. I tried it and looked at the camera image. Even in the sunlight something was visible.

(Above: where there’s a will…)

Motivated by this, I repeated the exercise at three other windows around the perimeter of the hanger. The side windows revealed the long sides of the chambered tomb. I wondered if I dared hope the remaining side had an open wooden shutter…

(Above: the side wall of the cairn is revealed)

I confess to having a small chuckle when the final shutter opened. At first I could see nothing, as the bright afternoon sun was streaming in behind me. Then, with adjusted eyes, the entrance to the long cairn came into focus. I found that if I blocked the sunlight with my body, I got a clear image – as clear as the dusty windows would allow.

(Above: Ah, this is the entrance!)

The ‘stalled’ chambered cairn of Mid Howe is an impressive example of a type of drystone monument known as an ‘Orkney-Cromarty’ cairn. Its entrance passage leads to a long central chamber, divided by pairs of upright stone slabs into 12 ‘stalls’.

Midhowe was excavated in 1932-3, again by Callander and Grant, who found the remains of at least 25 human skeletons, plus stone tools, pottery, and animal bone. In the mid-1930s it was enclosed by its present protective stone-built hangar, allowing the whole cairn to be appreciated. The outer layer of decorative stonework has been arranged in a herringbone pattern to reproduce the likely original.

The hanger was built from local stone. Rousay resident Walter Grant, co-excavator of Blackhammer, and owner of the Highland Park Distillery in Kirkwall, paid for its construction and, afterwards, gave it to the nation.

(Above: zooming in through the glass, the chambers emerge, blurred. But the phone camera was doing its best!)

I left smiling. I wouldn’t be able to evaluate the photos until I got back to the hotel, but I knew they had been worth taking. Perhaps we would come back, one day and take a proper tour. For now, the Broch and its wonderful setting beckoned. It was, literally, next door – though the two structures were not related.

Leaving the Chambered Tomb, my gaze was drawn towards the beautiful stratified rocks that led down to the sea near the Broch. I knew I had to get down there before we left the site.

(Midhowe’s Broch – a two minute walk from the Chambered Tomb)

The thickness of the Broch’s walls tells you that this was a defensive structure. Created long after the Neolithic people who made the temples at the Ness of Brodgar, the Iron Age people who lived here would have known little of their forebears, except perhaps for their stories and legends.

(Above: the incredible thickness of the walls illustrates their protective purpose)

Set behind a rock-cut ditch and rampart, Midhowe Broch was the first and largest building of a small, well laid-out village. It may have been built by an extended family demonstrating their power and influence in the area. Although the site would have provided some protection against sporadic raiding, the inhabitants were farmers, like nearly everyone else at this time.

(Above: the division of the interior)

On a clear day you can see the matching Broch of Gurness across the water. Midhowe is one of nine brochs that stand sentinel over the narrow and dangerous stretch of water known as Eynhallow Sound.

(Above: the call of the sea…)

Leaving the Broch and looking towards the sea, I had the sense that this would be the right place to finalise this series of blogs on Scotland and Orkney. By creating two streams, one going back in time, the other forwards, I could end up here. There was something very special about this place.

(Above: the end of the land, start of the sea… and in the distance, the mysterious and deadly Eynhallow tidal flow)

As I dropped down the descending levels of the layers of rock. I had the desire to let go of all the facts, all the history… They were important, academically, but they were the past. The consciousness in the landscape, the ‘I’ of each of us, was now and was real. In the next second, it too would become old and replaced with the next sequential part of the eternal now. To have that continuity was a gift of Life and memory, but what mattered was the now. The past was subjective history, the future was potential. Only the now had absolute reality.

That sense of letting go felt very good. Within a few minutes I was crouched, balanced on a wet slab of ancient rock, within inches of the lapping sea.

It was one of those, literally, perfect moments… There aren’t too many in a lifetime. The others in our group had left me to my exploring and were on their way back up to the car park. I was quite alone in a now landscape. This beautiful place had created an intense feeling of peace and objectivity. I crouched down on the rocks to make a recording of something very special. You can’t record that level of peace, but you can try…

The moment is here in the video, if you’d like to share it. It may not work within WordPress, but let’s see. If not, the photo above will give some idea of the moment…

This is the last blog in the Pictish Trail and City of the Stars series.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekends, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your interests are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part 8. This is Part Nine, the final part.

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The City and the Stars (8) : Longships

The traditional picture of the Vikings – looting, marauding, raping invaders – may not be entirely true of their time on Orkney, though they did rule this gentle archipelago with an iron fist for five hundred years… (1300 words, a ten-minute read)

(Above: the glory of St Magnus (Viking) Cathedral, Kirkwall)

History can be complex. Patterns of events that fit in one situation may not, even from the same peoples, dovetail into another. To understand why Orkney’s history of these times is likely to have differed from what might be expected, we need to put ourselves in the minds of the Vikings and examine what Orkney represented to them.

(Above: one of the ancient religious stones)

The sophisticated stone-age race that built the Ness of Brodgar temple-complex and neighbouring stone circles had long gone from Orkney. But the Norsemen did not immediately fill the gap.

No-one knows if anyone did, though farming continued – but without the intense spiritual concentration of former times. During the late Iron Age and for at least 400 years, the dominant cultural force on Orkney was Pictish. It’s likely that they came north, expanding their successful base centred on Inverness. They ruled Orkney for almost as long as the Vikings did, after them. Orkney had its own Pictish Kings, but, though powerfully autonomous in the islands, they were subservient to Inverness in wider Pictish affairs.

In many ways, our own journey over this extended weekend had mirrored that of the Picts. But we had already covered their achievements and culture further south, and they are documented in the earlier blogs (see below). The much more ancient wonders of Orkney had been our focus here. But, now, the story of the Picts had come into view, again, if only in the way they were subsumed into the Viking future, here on Orkney. There seems to have been little warfare, so perhaps they co-existed for a long time, Eventually, the Viking tribes emerged as the stronger cultural force, in line with the expansion of the whole Norse culture, driven by the ambitious Kings of Norway.

In many ways, Orkney was already theirs…

(Above: the pulpit at St Magnus Cathedral)

The Vikings were, essentially, seafarers. They were brave and fearless warriors and mariners of great skill. From their native bases in Scandinavia, they expanded across the world, following oceans and river systems deep into Europe and along the northern and western edges of Britain. Whenever they made these western journeys, they had to sail past Orkney. Its gentle hills and safe harbours were a haven to them. It was a natural stopping point on their outward and return journeys; and there are records (and sagas) of Norwegian royalty being entertained on Orkney, by their Earls – a measure of how important this place was in Viking times.

I hadn’t realised that the Vikings built Christian cathedrals, or that they had Earls, like the English. But both were here in Orkney during the height of their power. It’s confusing when you first look at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, and the place which became their power base in the later years of their reign. The location of the Cathedral is co-existent with the Earl’s Palace and the Palace of the Bishops across the street. So your first reaction is why there was so much ‘British hierarchy’ so far north?

(Above: the ruin of the Earls’ Palace, opposite the Cathedral)

But it’s not. Both the Cathedral and the two palaces are from the period when the Vikings ruled Orkney, administering it under the control of their own, powerful Earls – often two at a time, which was the gravitational force that created St Magnus Cathedral.

(St Magnus Cathedral: the main East-West axis)

The story of how St Magnus Cathedral came to be, and came to be here, is one of internecine warfare and a touch of Viking opportunism.

In 1103 the Viking cousins Magnus Erlendson and Haakon Paulson succeeded to the Earldom of Orkney. At first all went well, but, by 1117, major disputes had arisen. It was agreed that these would be resolved by a meeting on the island of Egilsay on 16th April of that year. Rules of engagement were drawn up, the core of which was that each Earl would take only two ships.

Haakon arrived with six, overwhelming the honest Magnus, who, though threatened with his life, refused to give up his Earldom. Haakon ordered Magnus’ own cook, Lifolf, to kill his master with a meat cleaver blow to his head.

A cenotaph now stands on the spot where this happened. Magnus was buried at Birsay, in the north of the ‘mainland’. Birsay was the Viking Earl’s base at the time, from which they could watch the northern waters. Magnus’ fame and the horror and dishonour of his death meant prayers were said for his soul and pilgrims began to visit his grave. Miraculous cures were reported and soon the place assumed legendary status.

Earl Haakon, now politically secure, became worried by this notoriety and made a pilgrimage to Rome to stabilise his position with the Christian church. He seems to have been successful. He was succeeded as Earl by his son, Paul… and now the tale gets interesting…

(Above: Rognvald Kolson holding a model of the original Cathedral dedicated to his uncle)

Paul was deposed in 1135 by the murdered Magnus’ nephew Rognwald Kolson, who declared his uncle a saint and vowed to raise money from the farmers of Orkney to build a vast cathedral dedicated to St Magnus. Durham masons – among the most skilled in Britain – were drafted in to supervise the design and construction. The new generation of Christian Bishops were a powerful force, and Rognwald Kolson, St Magnus’ nephew, made sure that the three buildings sat side by side. We can assume his political skills were as astute as his military prowess…

The cathedral was consecrated in 1150, when St Magnus’ remains were transferred from Birsay to a shrine in the east of the new church. The building was lengthened and extended in the next two centuries, and was completed to its present form in the 14th century.

Over the years that followed, it fell into disrepair – the Viking rule is not remembered here with fondness. But, in the past twenty years, extensive repair work has been carried out, which has made the St Magnus Cathedral more a more positive part of Orkney’s emotional future. It’s a very beautiful building, and a thriving centre of Kirkwall, which is a feature-rich place to visit.

Our time on Orkney was nearly over. We had one more day to explore, and we had chosen to leave the ‘Mainland’ for the first time and visit one of the neighbouring islands – Rousay. There, we knew, was an extensive defensive structure from the Iron Age. But first, we had to face a tense time on the ferry crossing!

The humorous and terrifying short ferry journey has already been written up as part of the parallel ‘incidentals’ blogs. The link is here.

The story of our final full day on Orkney and its visit to Rousay will be published on Thursday’s blog.

To be continued.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekends, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your areas of interest are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, this is Part 8.

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

The City and the Stars (7) : The Standing Stones of Stenness

The Standing Stones of Stenness are reduced in importance compared with their former status. But 5,000 years ago, they were the stone circle for the Ness of Brodgar spiritual city. Only later, in the period culminating in the deliberate act of self-destruction of the Ness of Brodgar structures, were these stones eclipsed as the ‘guide to the heavens’…

(1300 words, a twelve-minute read)

The Orkney site of the Standing Stones of Stenness is overshadowed by its neighbour – the Ring of Brodgar, which is just a few minutes away by car, or fifteen minutes on foot. We had done it both ways… the first time was under a spectacular golden sunset, in 2018. This was the second, and our final visit to the Ness of Brodgar area. 

There were other reasons to visit Orkney, but seeing the entire Ness of Brodgar area – in light of the implications of recent excavations – had been the main reason for extending the Silent Eye’s weekend onto Orkney.

For a long period of time at the start of what we now call the Neolithic era – the new stone age, the stones at Stenness were the major stone circle on Orkney, and a key component of the life of the ritual city centred on the Ness of Brodgar, whose sophistication is just coming to light, as detailed in a previous post. 

The Standing Stones of Stenness were raised between 3,000 and 2,900 BC. Originally, the circle consisted of no more than 12 stones. Today, only four survive. They were surrounded by a wide ditch and raised circular bank (a henge) which was crossed by a single causeway. The whole is reminiscent of how the interior of the Ness of Brodgar’s Structure 10 led only to one point at the centre of the building…for those granted the privilege of being there. In both cases, the recipients are likely to have been carefully selected, and few in number.

(Above: across the lochs of Harray and Stenness, the neighbouring island of Hoy in the distance. The valley between the far mountains is a key alignment of the Ring of Brodgar at the winter solstice – see post)

There were several related stones that lay outside the stone circle. These include the Stone of Odin, which features in local legends but was destroyed by a local farmer in 1800s, and the Watch stone, which marks the land bridge to the area which contains the Ring of Brodgar, though the latter had not been constructed at the time the Stenness Stones were erected.

(Above: The Stenness Watch Stone, photographed in 2018)

At the centre of the Stenness circle was a large hearth. In Neolithic houses, such as those we had seen at Skara Brae (and, though not visited, Barnhouse, next to Stenness) the hearth formed a ritual focal point. The fire there would have been viewed as sacred, and as demonstrating to ‘nature’ that the tribe understood there was an inner fire possessed by all of life, and passed down to it from the ‘stars’.

(Above: a hearth at the centre of the circle would have held deep symbolic significance. This hearth is at Skara Brae)

We have lost the sense of ‘specialness of fire’. To us, fire is commonplace and practical. Unless we are young children there is no wonder in it, even though, if civilisation ended and we found ourselves freezing, few would have the ability to make it, again. The comforts of the modern world have their benefits and their disadvantages. One of the latter is the loss of contact with the vital forces of nature…

(Above: the key alignment with the line of the midwinter solstice sunset)

Like Struture 10 at the neighbouring Ness of Brodgar, the single entrance at Stenness created a hallowed central space where access could be controlled. Its use can only have been ceremonial and ritualistic: the birth of a child, perhaps; the survival of that child beyond seven years; the coming of age as an adult; the passage of a trainee into the priesthood… perhaps all these things took place here.

(Above: Bernie demonstrates the size of one of the largest stones)

There is also celebration. The coming together of the people – probably from far away, as this was such an important centre of Neolithic life. You can stand on this place, look back at Lochs Stenness and Harray and feel how they might have rejoiced at such a gathering.

There was in all probability an earlier building at the site partially represented by sections of masonry, empty stone holes and an earlier central hearth setting.

(Above: The Stenness stones are slender, and look quite fragile; yet they have withstood five thousand years of weathering)

The form of the stones themselves is of architectural note in that they are very tall and very thin blades of stone i.e. they are structurally very slender and probably at the very limit of structural stability. The stone monoliths were derived from at least five different sources, one of which was Vestra Fiold, on the west coast of Mainland, north of Skara Brae.

A leading archeologist writes:

“The Stones of Stenness speak of an early and sophisticated society in northern Britain: it is a rarity to have evidence for contemporary and adjacent ritual and settlements sites; it is an added bonus that their stories appear to weave together to present an imaginative and new appreciation of life in early prehistoric times.”

We had run out of time… No-one wanted to leave the Brodgar area. We gathered to review what this landscape had taught us about the sophisticated people who had lived here, so long ago.

  • The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar have shown that all the sites here, plus the ‘village’ of Skara Brae, were part of a single, spiritually-focussed landscape that involved both a trained priesthood and a dedicated (and hugely ‘expensive’) temple-building programme. The ritual chamber at Maeshowe is a foremost example of this.
  • The so-called ‘Dressers‘ – see image below – were the central edifice in the kind of worship these people performed, and we should examine them accordingly. From this perspective, we can see that there is a significance to the three legs. The idea of ‘threeness’ was central to much of the Celtic world, and invokes the idea that an impelling higher will uses the ‘descending’ power of duality to achieve its purposes. Mankind, as an intelligent recipient of a creative Nature, can come full circle and project this back to the Creator to demonstrate understanding.
(Above: the ‘dresser’ turns out to be the ‘altar’ of the ancient priests)
  • The excavations at the Ness of Brodgar uncovered ‘shelves’ of these dressers decorated in bright reds and yellows – very likely solar in their representation.
  • The use of the midwinter solstice as the most sacred time of the year (rather than the midsummer) indicates a subtle comprehension of the ‘tension of cycles’. In my previous ‘fictional’ example, the new priest is chosen and ordained by an appearance of the last sun of the ‘old cycle’ i.e. before the start of the six months in which the sun gets brighter, and the days longer. The priest is thus associated with the power of light over the darkness…
(Above: a sad farewell to the Ness of Brodgar area, and a certainty that we would be back for another workshop…)

The day was ending. The following morning, we would sample the best – rather than the worst – of the Viking culture that eventually overtook Orkney, bringing a long period of imposed feudalism to its occupants. But, even within that, there were elements of great beauty.

(Above: Viking beauty…)

To be continued.

If you would like to be notified of future Silent Eye weekend workshops, drop us a line to rivingtide@gmail.com, saying what your areas of interest are.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six. This is Part Seven

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

Rambling Rocks

(But what is it?)

I thought it might be interesting to take some of the less relevant episodes – the ‘out-takes’ – from the just-completed Scottish workshop (and subsequent journey to Orkney) and run them in reverse time-sequence. The Thursday blogs, here, will continue with the linear sequence of the Scottish and Orkney explorations.

That way the odd bits of the journey and the main storyline would meet somewhere in the middle – I have no idea where! Let’s see what happens…

The above image worked better than I thought it would. At face value, it could be a giant slide attached to a hotel on a headland, with a sandstone rock hitching a ride and about to decapitate the observer!

But it’s not, of course. It’s part of a sculptural installation on the headland at John O’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and a few sea miles from the archipelago of Orkney, from which we had just sailed… at 06:15 in the morning.

North of John O’ Groats – between the coast and Orkney – is the Pentland Firth, famous for its fast and ferocious tides and cross-currents. Dire-sounding weather and tidal warnings for Pentland Firth are regular features of BBC weather broadcasts.

The deadly tidal rapids on the surface of the Pentland Firth are common knowledge, but less well-known are the resulting activities beneath the sea. Recently, a new insight was gained when researchers, supporting the growing commercial interest in the harnessing of some of the Firth’s vast tidal power, began surveying the seabed with a view to locating permanent turbines on the ocean floor.

During this exercise, it was discovered that large rolling boulders of up to 1.5 tons in weight – similar to that of an average car – were regularly moved great distances across the seabed by forceful currents!

This fascinated local artists Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, whose work focusses on art and sculpture inspired by ecology and natural phenomena.

(Above: Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, creators of the Nomadic Boulders sculpture. Their website is here. Image taken from their website)

They put forward a proposal for a sculptural installation that mirrored their own delight at the thought of large deep-sea boulders wandering along the sea bed, powered by the stormy waves above. The result is what you see in the above photographs; something that puts John O’ Groats on the modern artistic map.

(Above: close-up you can see how heavy the boulders are. The ones used in the installation were washed up on a local beach during a violent storm)

The information board sets the context:

Across the world, boulders that defy the weightiness, their solid stability and static nature and hint instead at a more animated past are often celebrated. Small pilgrimages are made to visit them and share in their unusual power...

(Above: the ‘Nomadic Boulders’ information board)

… While the Nomadic Boulders of John O’Groats will forever remain shrouded in the deep and stormy depths of the sea, this monument serves to bring them to our consciousness, perhaps affording a tantalising glimpse of the world beneath the sea.’

Having sailed from Orkney on the early ferry, we were hoping to break the trip around the coast with a hot drink, before the long drive south. But at nine in the morning, on our first ever visit, John O’Groats was closed. We couldn’t even get a a cup of coffee. Scenic, though, and Larissa, one of our travelling companions and a skilled photographer, did gift us a fine portrait at the famous signpost.

To be fair, John O’ Groats is a fine and symbolic place, The harbour is lovely, and a pleasant place to wander around. The main view, though, is the sight of the Pentland Firth, and, beyond that, the outline of the Orkney archipelago.

(Above: John O’ Groats harbour)
(Above: The Pentland Firth and (distant right) the outline of Orkney)

©Copyright Stephen Tanham, 2020.

The fabric of being

We all know them, that handful of people who cling to a reactionary refusal to own a mobile phone… or turn it on when they do… or bother to check it. Or they don’t really like computers or social media. You can’t get hold of them, they pass their lives in a state of technological invisibility and you wonder how on earth they can survive…

Or… you secretly envy them their anonymity and accepted state of unavailability…

It is not so very long ago that communication was less intense, relying on ‘local’ calls and handwritten letters. The reliability of the mail was legendary, if slow, and such missives could be cherished or responded to in a timely fashion… say, a week or two. And that was okay. These days, ‘radio silence’ presses the panic buttons… people, including ourselves most of the time, expect an instant response. We have, very quickly, learned to live in a world that responds at the touch of a button and very often we seem to expect people to do the same. It is all about ‘now’.

Technological advances have not only changed our world, but our expectations, both of ourselves and others. We have, over the course of a couple of generations, seen a complete redesign of our daily lifestyles. We no longer have to beat carpets or black lead the range. Laundry is done, and even dried, at the touch of a button instead of the labour intensive wash-day that saw, even in my own childhood, coppers boiling, wash-boards and mangles at dawn and the flat irons heating in the embers of the black-leaded grate. Food no longer needs to be grown or prepared and ‘gourmet’ meals can be purchased ready-made from the supermarket chiller cabinet. And although, with the loss of cooking skills, the understanding of food and nutrition is being eroded, we can, of course, always take supplements…obviating even the need to chew.

Our days… assuming that our technologies are working as they should… have been freed of many constraints. We have more potential leisure time than we have ever had in the history of mankind… and many of us ironically turn to some kind of technological gadgetry with which to fill it. Meanwhile old skills are becoming obsolete… how many of us still know how to starch a shirt, for example? Do we need to know… do we even care? Most of us would emphatically answer in the negative… but are we really right to do so? Because it isn’t just the skills that are lost…

It isn’t exactly about how to dress a flawless shirt that crackles when you move… what I am thinking of here is the amount of care we put into the small, humdrum acts of daily life. The generations-old christening robe or wedding veil would not have survived this long had someone not learned to understand its fabric and spent time and effort on its care and preservation. With today’s wash-and-go fabrics, would we do the same? Do our email conversations hold the same place in our hearts as the bundle of faded, handwritten letters? Time and attention, a learned skill, a labour of love…

Anyone who has ever created a work of art or craft will know that feeling of pride and satisfaction when it is completed and you step back to look at the finished article. Anyone who cooks from scratch or watches the slow growth and ripening of fruit in the garden knows they taste different from their pretty, shop-bought cousins. Not just because of the obvious commercial factors, but simply because you have come to know the tree, the plant and the soil… you have watered and fed and watched as they grew and the relationship thus built with the fruit is personal. The care, time and attention we give to any object or task has a direct correlation to the value we place upon it and the relationship we build with it… a relationship that involves us on all levels, from the physical work involved, to the mental use of knowledge to the emotions it engenders. What we really earn, we value. What is done with love… like a child’s first scrawled painting of a parent… is valued. For the rest, we live in a society that allows for few things to impinge upon our hearts; our possessions often little more than visible symbols of our success that we can wear as a badge of status to convince others, and thus reassure ourselves of our worth. It sometimes seems that the biggest loss of all over the past generation or two is a lack of true value for ourselves.

We no longer know how to define ourselves; there is a lack of confidence in our identities, a pervasive uncertainty in our relationships with ourselves. Perhaps this is one reason why more and more people are turning towards the many spiritual paths made more accessible by the very technology that allows us the time to study them. Sadly, there are all too many pseudo-spiritual schemes on the market, profiteering from this need and offering little more than comforting reassurance, usually at a premium price. Or ways to achieve all with minimal effort… well, someone is doing well from these schemes, but it is seldom the sincere seeker of inner truth and harmony who profits…

scarf3

The spiritual journey is almost like laundering a garment. What we do will depend on what we seek from and for it in the longer term. Is this something we would wear for a season and discard, or something we hope will last a lifetime and beyond? A garment can come in every shade of the rainbow and the method of care of cotton is unsuitable for silk. Each is unique, yet shares a common underlying need.

When we are new and unworn, we are fresh and unblemished. Everyday life gradually adds its creases, stains and soiling and there is a point where we realise that we must do something about it or watch a steady deterioration that takes the garment beyond beauty. The first turning towards the path of the soul is comparable to a light wash… an initial cleansing that can be enough to freshen and maintain the garment in serviceable condition. We can go on that way for a long time, but without proper care the garment will, inevitably, begin to fade and pass a point where it will appear able to be restored to its pristine condition.

If, on the other hand, we look at the garment and take careful stock of its condition, learning to understand its fabric, identifying the damage and the individual stains and learning what they are so we can then learn how to remove them specifically, we can cleanse the garment with thorough and loving care. If we want to restore its pristine nature, we might learn how to properly ‘dress’ the garment… realising that its newly cleaned brightness may have to go back to the water to be dipped and soaked in starch… wrung into further creases and left to try in its own time, before being carefully smoothed with the heat of the iron. We may not know how to proceed… but we will know who will or where to search for those skills forgotten or unlearned. There is always someone to turn to who can guide us through the process, though sometimes the advice may seem strange.

It is a long process and there is much to be learned. It isn’t always an easy task, nor is it always a pleasant one. Many give up or prefer to believe that the stain on the front of the garment is something else entirely, not the ketchup they themselves had dropped there. Yet the longer we wait to begin, the more stains and moth-holes we may have to tackle. Restoration takes time, care and attention… which are, oddly enough, the very same qualities that allow us to engage with the things that matter to us most deeply… and which bring a true sense of achievement, value and identity.

In our society we are fast learning to want everything ‘now’. Yet the things we still value most are those that we work for, those we earn… those things that are worth waiting for. We do not expect to get such items without care and effort, nor do we expect to see the fruits of such long-term labours materialise immediately, though we may be working hard towards them. Nevertheless, we will see the savings in the bank grow, find our knowledge expanding or our skills improving, day by day, month by month as we turn our efforts and attention towards our goal. There comes, though, a moment when we realise that there was a ‘now’ where we made a start… and there will be a ‘now’ when we achieve our dream… but meanwhile our ‘now’ must be devoted to what we are doing right at this moment on the journey between the two.

The journey through life is unique for each of us, a turning point that may come early or late… some seem born with the starry heavens in their eyes and pursue that vision with all that they are, others seem to seek nothing until the silence of their last moments. Yet all of us, at some point, will question the stains and creases we acquire as life wears our soul. Sometimes, all we have to do is ask…

Tango in the key of sorry

As the years pass, I continue to wonder at the marvel of human communication, and the sadness of how little we use its potential…

The world appears to be full of conflict and strife. But much of it is happening at the psychological level. The Trump era in America and the Brexit ‘civil war’ in the UK were both fuelled by similar (if not the same) media barons, but they continue to feed on two common elements of human nature – hatred and anxiety; in most cases related to things that were not present.

The power of fear plus the well-placed myth of taking back control are a potent brew… and a complete lie.

This lowest state, in which our desire for real interaction with those of other opinions drops to zero, is easily kindled in people who have limited awareness of the complexity and interaction of modern societies. The populist dictator always sows ‘his’ seeds among the weak-thinking, the people who believe in black and white solutions. But that state of mind is driven only by despair at their own situation.

A wise and enduring society ensures that, though there may be layers of prosperity, no-one is in that lowest position of helplessness.

For good or ill, our societies have evolved into enormous machines of interrelated complexity. All attempts to disengage with internationalism are doomed to the same sad death – costing the inhabitants of the country decades of repair in wealth and reputation. In many cases our societies may never enjoy the prestige they had, before.

But to blame the car which has just driven into a line of innocent people, where the bodies lie, broken across the pavements, is equally wrong. Complex machines require sophisticated pilots. There is no equivocation about a pilot’s science: the plane lands, successfully, or it crashes. There are no ‘alternative facts’ about whether it landed; just like there are no alternative facts about how a virus rips through an innocent and unguided population.

Populism dies in the face of such disasters… and for those who still persist with alternative facts there is, simply, no hope. They are to be shunned by the ‘healthy cells’ of the society to which they represent such a threat. The society – the ‘body’ – remembers health, and yearns to return to it. Only the routes back are seen differently.

In this deadly tango, which now embraces us all, are the seeds of despair and hope. The despair will take us all down – like the car without a driver, or a driver who chooses the fundamentalism of alternative facts over the power of the real and chooses to die in an orgy of ego.

Hope requires that, as individuals, we all take responsibility for listening to others’ point of view – no matter how antithetical they seem to our own minds. All counselling is based, first, upon listening.

There may be a ‘special place in Hell’ for those who engineered the chaos in which we find ourselves. But the greater power lies in the word ‘sorry’ – said from the heart opened with empathy.

It is the beginning of that special state that repairs a world.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a ‘school of the soul’ that offers a three-year, mentored path to personal, spiritual growth, independent of religion.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details.