“I’ve been signing the first orders and leaving them in a rose garden,” says Martin Shaw, who is on lockdown at his Dartmoor cottage in the UK. “My friend Michael Martin then collects them and they get out to the world. It’s good to see his distant but joyful face!
“I want to thank you for supporting Cista Mystica, my small press. We have a major plan of action to be announced soon. In the meantime, please enjoy some free audio here on my website, and consider having a look at our soon-to-be-even fuller shop.
In Siberian myth, when you want to hurt someone, you crawl into their tent and close the smoke hole.
That way God can’t see them.
Close the smoke hole and you break connection to the divine world. Mountains, rivers, trees.
Close the smoke hole and we become mad.
Close the smoke hole and we are possessed by ourselves and only ourselves.
Close the smoke hole and you have only your neurosis for company.
Well, enough of that. Really, c’mon. We’re grown ups. Let’s take a breath.
We may have to seek some solitude, but let’s not isolate from the marvellous.
High alert is the nature of the moment, and rightly so, but I do not intend to lose the reality that as a culture we are entering deeply mythic ground.
I am forgetting business as usual. No great story begins like that.
What needs to change? Deepen? What kindness in me have I so abandoned that I could seek relationship with again?
It is useful to inspect my ruin.
Could I strike up an old relationship with my soul again?
You don’t need me to tell you how to keep the smoke hole open. You have a myriad of ways.
We are awash with the power of words – virus, isolate, pandemic – and they are pointing towards very real things. To some degree we need the organisational harassment of them.
But do they grow corn on your tongue when you speak them?
Where is the beauty-making in all this?
That is part – part – of the correct response. The absolute heft of grief may well be the weave to such a prayer mat.
Before we burn the whole world down in the wider rage of Climate Emergency, of which this current moment is just a hint, could we collectively seek vigil in this moment?
Cry for a vision?
It’s what we’ve always done.
We need to do it now.
March 15th 2020
Martin Shaw was in conversation with the Grand Dame of Painting, Maggi Hambling at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on November 8. Says Martin: “I Loved every minute of it. A real pirate queen of the deep sea, way out from land.”
It was then on to Cambridge for an afternoon and evening hosted by the Cambridge Storytellers – The Storyteller and the Shaman. Tickets were in great demand and it was another sell out success.
This was the final leg of the UK Into the Marvellous Tour.
A magical wild week in Ireland filled with poetry, story and music saw all events sold out and an article in the Irish Times.
And as he travelled across Ireland, Martin left 50 copies of his latest book Bardskull, an edition that can’t be bought with no ISBN number, in copses, under stones, by raggedy little wells, in shopping centres, taverns and rivers – each copy a snake attempting to return to Ireland.
Says Martin: “There’s older ways to enter Ireland than ferry tickets or passport waggles, and I hope these words burrow past some of the pain of Leaving or Remaining and are received as a clear, loving gesture.”
The tour kicked off in Dublin with Fire in the Head, a rare, deep and rich conversation with the genius Tommy Tiernan and music from Patrick O’Laoghaire and guests, culminating in a surprise performance from Liam O’Maonlai.
Martin has returned to Devon with tales of a visit to the wonderful Lilliput Press, home of the writings of philosopher John Moriarty, forays out into the lakes and hills to ancient monasteries, sheltering in a tavern with pints of black nectar, blown away by Irish pipers and impromptu songs.
After Dublin it was on to Thoor Ballylee and Yeats’s Tower for a day of myth and stories, with a tremendous welcome from the Thoor Ballylee Society.
“It was wonderful to see so many of you from near and far,” says Martin. “What a fairytale ending to utterly marvellous Ireland adventures.”
For anyone who missed out, there will be a gathering in Devon on November 16, The Storyteller and the Shaman: the Woman Who Married a Bear, where Martin will be weaving many ancient stories and new ideas, including the extremely rare and off-the-beaten-Taiga Siberian tale of The Woman Who Married a Bear.
An extract from Bardskull:
Let it be known my ancestors are not just people, they are rivers, hills, caves and hawks. They are rain-bears, thumping their sleepy belly for sex and meat in the middle of a Siberian winter. They are the green ink in Lorca’s pen, they are twelve young stags in an autumn glade.
Neb is min niperweard
‘my tooth is long’
And I may bite you.
You have to come with me.
The first few hundred copies of Wolf Milk: Chthonic Memory in the Deep Wild, Dr Martin Shaw’s latest book about wilderness rites of passage, have been posted out by the team at Cista Mystica Press.
The pre-ordered copies have all been personally signed by the author and are making their way to destinations all over the world.
This book offers Martin’s reflections on 20 years of leading vigils in the wilderness, a way for modern people to enter an ancient ceremony through ‘myth, poetics and hard-won brooding’.
Billl Plotkin, author of Soulcraft and Wild Mind says: “With sleight-of-mind and wizardly word magic, Shaw conserves and amplifies the mysteries of this ancient pancultural ceremony. A visit to an underworld cave of gods who might, if you please them, shred and reassemble your life. Cleverly disguised as a book, this fireside spell-casting belongs in the satchel of anyone venturing downward – and those who would guide them.”
David Abram, author of Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, describes Wolf Milk as “a kind of handbook for being made and remade through the work of the wild…how we might replenish genuine culture at this teetering moment on the whirling earth.”
This very latest book, launched on September 2 2019, also contains drawings by Martin, whose own life was profoundly changed by the experience in his early twenties.
He says of the experience: “It is your task to walk back from the vigil with an animal not a pelt, not a corpse, but something alive.
“Curate that energy, feed it, don’t domesticate it, make culture from it. It should be walking alongside you, not slung over your shoulder. You build your structures from its growls.”
A portion of the profits from the book will be donated to Survival International.
The second leg of the Into the Marvellous UK tour was a riotous sell out success, with packed audiences braving the July heatwave in Bridport, Bruton, Hampshire, London, Canterbury and Lewes.
The next trip will be Ireland in October, with two events at Yeats’s Tower in Thoor Ballylee on October 5 – see here for details and tickets. An event in Dublin is also in the pipeline, to be announced soon.
an essay by Dr Martin Shaw
As both a mythologist and wilderness rites-of-passage guide I am frequently asked to comment on climate change, collapsing stories, and what on earth to say to our kids about the future. I am no kind of pundit, so choose my words sparingly and carefully. What follows is a few thoughts.
The real horn being blown at this moment is one some of us simply cannot hear. Oh, we see — the endless television clips of crashing icebergs, emaciated polar bears, and a hand-wringing David Attenborough — but I don’t think we necessarily hear.
Climate change isn’t a case to be made, it’s a sound to be heard.
It’s really hearing something that brings the consequence with it — “I hear you.” We know that sensation, when it happens the whole world deepens. If we really heard what is happening around us it’s possible some of it may stop. From a mythic perspective, seeing is often a form of identifying, but hearing is the locating of a much more personal message. Hearing creates growing, uncomfortable discernment. Things get accountable.
I worry I have been looking but not hearing.
When I hear, I detect what is being disclosed specifically to me at this moment of shudderation and loss. What is being called forth? Whatever it is, I won’t likely appreciate it.
We remember that the greatest seers, the great storytellers, the greatest visionaries are so often blind. Listening is the thing.
In ancient Greece, if you needed wisdom greater than human you went to the market square of Pharae in Achaea and created libation for Hermes, god of communication, messages, storytelling. There stood a statue of the bearded god. After burning incense, lighting the oil lamp, and leaving coin on the right of the deity, you whispered your question in its ear. Once complete, you swiftly turned and left the sacred area with your hands over your ears. Once out, you removed your hands, and the very first words you heard were Hermes speaking back to you. You curated these insights into your heart, pondered and then acted on them.
You didn’t see Hermes, you heard Hermes. You listened.
It’s said that in ancient Greece the deaf were shunned through their supposed lack of capacity to hear the gods. That was considered dangerous.
Isn’t it interesting that the enquirer to Hermes kept their ears blocked till they were out of the market square, so as not to be assailed by idle, above-world chatter and think it divine? I wonder if we may be asking the question to Hermes but removing our hands too early.
As a storyteller I have noticed when an audience is profoundly absorbing the import of a story, they close their eyes to do so. It deepens the encounter. Anyway, onto my main thought:
I think we are in the Underworld and haven’t figured it out yet. Both inside and outside us.
The strange thing about the Underworld is that it can look an awful lot like this one. It’s not situated in those esoteric graphs and spiritual maps we study, it’s situated as a lived experience.
I recently saw a mist suddenly descend on my garden, it just rolled in out of nowhere. Everything changed, just like that. Very quickly all appeared different: no shrubs, no apple trees, it was a foreign landscape. The dead felt usefully closer, the silence deeper. In just a moment, the Underworld seemed present, as an atmosphere rather than concept, a tangible, seasonal shift not a distant idea.
This world can be Otherworld, Underworld, heavenly, hellish and all points in between. It can still be Arcadia, Camelot, Eden almost. That’s why it’s confusing. We still get to go on holiday, drink wine, watch beautiful sunsets. We still pay insurance and kids still go to college. But there is something happening. An unravelling. A collapsing, both tacit and immense in scale.
We are frightened and we do not know what will happen next.
And into that fraught zone drifts quite naturally the Underworld. This is not the dayworld, this is the nightworld we are entering. It’s not a mistake or aberration, it is fitting with the times.
But we are still using dayworld words. This is why so little works.
When we move into Underworld time, mythically the first thing to go is often the lights. This is a shadowed or even pitch-black zone of encounter. Nothing is how it seems on the surface of things. We have to get good with our ears. So to repeat, our eyes alert us to the wider situation, but it’s our ears that alert us to the personal, the particular, the micro in the macro. This tends to be when the heart is alerted.
And there’s just more of the Underworld about. Its tactile, tangible attributes. We have Penthos (Grief),Curae (Anxiety) and Phobus (Fear), those gatekeepers of the place roving ever more readily amongst us. Either chronic or acute, acknowledged or not, they are present at our table. So what happens when the underneath, the chthonic, the shadowed material starts to become more and more visible in our lives?
We start to fess up.
The Underworld is a place where we admit our red right hand. We give up the apotropaic.
An apotropaic act is when you ritually ward off evil. When you claim innocence unduly you are attempting a similar, unseemly act. Keeping your hands clean. So we could entertain our own hypocrisies for a while. That would be suitably sobering. When we start to remove the scaffold of smoke and mirrors propping up our lives, what is left? That is part of an Underworld etiquette.
I also have to say something deeply unfashionable: it is not relentless self-absorption that makes us realise our interior mess is directly mirrored outside ourselves. That’s not vanity, that’s attention. It’s not hubris, it’s horrifying clarity. If you don’t attend to your soul’s vitality with intent, then suppressed it’ll run you ragged. They are not above catastrophe to get your attention.
Soul seems more dangerous to talk about than sex, violence, death or money these days.
As many nerve endings as there are in a body, are the messages attempting to issue forth between place, animal and person in regards to climate change. I think we should forget the rest and attend to ours. Staggering spiritual repair is called for. It is not just those bad white men in power that did this. We all did.
I believe something will crawl back out of the Underworld. It will. It always does. But it may not be us.
The Underworld chews up soundbites, gnaws on the feeble marrow of platitude, pummels certainty or sweeping predictions into the greasy darkness of the cave to gobble later.
The Underworld speaks out of both sides of its mouth.
So being that’s where I think we are, I suggest we should develop a little etiquette. Hold a little paradox, to speak out of both sides of our mouths.
In the Underworld, even a spirit takes on more than one form.
In Roman such spirits were called — di manes, or in Greek — theoi cthonioi. One being can have several bodies, all communicating things a little different. The one fixed position erupts into the polyphonic many. A stuck position, a one sided position, is child’s play where we’re headed.
So with those standpoints vivid in mind, I’m going to ask us to hold two, seemingly contrary positions at the same time. That we could deepen into both.
1. Stop Saying That The Earth Is Doomed
You may be doomed, I may be doomed, the earth not so much.
And anyway, do you have any idea how offensive that is to the gods? To any amount of offended magics? Especially to your children? To the perpetual and ongoing miraculous? In the Underworld, such grand protestations reveal a lack of subtlety. Even hubris.
And who are we, with our unique divinatory access, that we seem to have information withheld from everything else in all time and space. And now, now we are suddenly cleaving to the “facts” of the matter? Facts don’t have the story. They have no grease to the wheel, they are often moribund, awkward clumps of information that can actually conceal truth, not promote it.
I’m not even asking for hope or despair, I’m suggesting responsiveness to wonder. To entertain possibility. And to deepen.
Cut out the titillation of extinction unless we are really are prepared to be appropriately stupefied with loss. To stop trafficking in it just to mainline a little temporary deep feeling into our veins as we post the latest Ted Talk on social media. It doesn’t mean it’s not true, doesn’t mean that rivers, deserts and ice floes don’t daily communicate their flogged and exhausted missive, but there’s an odd twisted eroticism, a Western Thanatos that always comes with excessive privilege. And let’s be clear, most of us reading this are excessively privileged. I think some of us are getting off on this. That it-all-will-end assists some poignancy to a life deprived of useful hardships. Not ever knowing appropriate sacrifice is not a victory, it’s a sedative.
But when we prematurely claim doom we have walked out of the movie fifteen minutes early, and we posit dominion over the miraculous. We could weave our grief to something more powerful than that. Possibility.
Let the buck stop with you. Where is your self-esteem if you claim the world is doomed with you still kicking in it? How can that be? What are you, chopped liver? Is that really your last word on that matter? I’m not suggesting a Hercules complex land on your shoulders, but if ever you longed for a call to action this is the moment. And, at the very same time:
2. Approaching The Truth That Things End
Dancing on the very same spear tip, we accept our very human response to things ending. We don’t like it. We loathe it. The good stuff at least. Though it is a historical inevitability, a biological place-holder, could we start to explore the thought that earth may appropriately proceed without us? Without our frantically curated shape? Could our footprints become pollen that swirl up for a moment and then are gone? I’m not suggesting we are anything but pulverised with sorrow with the realisation, and our part in its hastening, but I persist.
I’m offering no spiritual platitudes, no lofty overview, but for once we stop our wrestle with god and feel deeply into the wreckage of appropriate endings.
That even, or especially such catastrophic loss requires the most exquisite display for the love we did not know how deeply we loved till we knew it was leaving.
I think even to operate for a second in the Underworld without being annihilated we have to operate from both wonder and grief, at absolutely the same time. One does not cancel the other out, it is the very tension of the love-tangle that makes us, possibly, a true human being.
Notice I said approaching, not accepting the truth that things end. That’s to swift a move, too fraudulent, too counterfeit, too plastic. Approaching is devastation enough.
This terrible, noble counterweight is what we are getting taught. But it doesn’t end there.
There in that very contrariness something gets forged: something that is neither-this-nor-that, a deepening, the blue feather in the magpie’s tale, the Hermian move to excruciating brilliance through the torment of paradox, the leap of dark consciousness that we, in the name of culture, are being asked to make. The thunderbolt that simultaneously destroys and creates.
These are grand turns of phrase I’m using but I don’t apologise. You’ve been in love once or twice, you know what I’m banging on about.
I once heard that to become a sovereign of Ireland you had to attach a chariot to two wild horses. One would lurch one way, one the other. You revealed your spiritual maturity and general readiness for the task by so harnessing the tension of both that a third way forward revealed itself. The holy strain of both impulses created the royal road to Tara. A road that a culture could process down. I’m talking about something like that. That’s Underworld character.
And such sovereigns were not defined by what they ransacked, what they conquered, but how they regulated their desire, how they attended to the woes and ambitions of their steeds for a third way to reveal itself. Under great pressure and with immense skill.
The nightworld is where we are.
I say it. I say it till we may hear it.
And in that darkness, we remember what we love the most.
That itself is the candle.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2019
By Dr Martin Shaw
Fairy tales tell us that we were born with a secret twin, a wild twin, and on the hour of its birth it was sent into exile, abandoned in the forest. That a good life is one that seeks them out.
Who is the wild twin?
I first caught the perfume of my wild twin by walking with muddy boots though wet grasses to my scrubby woodland den as a six year old. As the trees swirled I caught a scent and started to cry without understanding. I wove a pheasant feather in my hair. I hear it now in the owl court who hoot across the frost grass and moon touched lawns of my cottage. There’s more than book smarts in that chill delirium. These are not domestic tones, not corralled sounds, but loose as Dartmoor ponies on the hill. They give me ecstasy. Not safety, not contentment, certainly not ease, not peace, but ecstasy. It’s almost painful. Makes me restless.
I also felt the wild twin when I lost the girl I loved the most. I felt it when attending the sickness of another. I felt it when exhausted, heart sore, bewildered and despairing. I felt it when I attended to the sorrows of life in all their radical, unruly agency.
The wild twin is not unique to me, you have one, everyone has one. That’s the message from the old stories. That the day you were born a twin was thrown out the window, sent into exile. That it wanders the woods and the prairies and the cities, lonely in its whole body for you. It rooms in abandoned houses in south Chicago. Someone saw her once on a Dorset beach in winter. They are always asking after you.
It lives in the feeling when the ruddy mud of the Nile squeezes between your toes, when moonlight slips from the mouth of a Heron, when you play cards with a delightful villain. It’s going to push you towards ruin on occasion, and has a lot of generosity towards kids. It will hide your laptop and send a thousand wild geese processing over your cabin in an October dusk. The wild twin is the glorious vintner of the blood-wine of your many private battles, and sells it in highly prized bottles to remote Armenian queens. It is incorrigible, melodramatic, and has only your best interests at heart.
Know your twin and you will become distracted by fiery angels languishing round the water cooler, you will beat your palms to drums no one else can hear, and subtle ideas will fly from you. At least that’s what I hear. The wild twin doesn’t fetishise surety, embezzle guarantees or even really believes they exist. It hides chocolate in the pockets of your scruffy haired nephews and whispers forgiveness as it walks through the gardens we have neglected to tend. It hands us a spade.
I believe that in the labour of becoming a human we have to earnestly search this character out, as it has something crucial for you with it. It has your life’s purpose tucked up in its pocket. If there was something you were here to do in these few, brief years, you can be sure that the wild twin is holding the key.
Wildness attracts everybody, but appears to be in short supply. Not feral, not hooligan, not brawling, but the regal wild. The sophisticated wild. So you should be gathering by now that these words are about locating your long abandoned twin and courting it home. We’re going to use two old fairy tales to do it. And note the word court. This is a protracted affair this locating, with the possibility of many missteps, bruised shins and hissed exchanges. Though they long for you, the twin may not broker relationship easily if you’ve been separated for many years, she wants to know you’re serious. We’ll cover the complexity of such a reunion as we go. They want to give you a bang on the ear and a kiss on the lips all at the same time.
A book on this very thing, coming.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2019.
Martin is just finishing up a new book on wilderness rites of passage, due out in September 2019. This is not a book for everyone, he says, but he hopes it’s of use to one or two. Here are a few lines from the introduction:
Winter gods lope the forest
Strike you with their wolfskin glove
And the counterfeit life
Takes its carrion demands
Back to the blue deceits
Of the one who first folded you.
I trust words like that more than therapy talk, or becoming-your-best-self, or some strangulated idea about enlightenment. That there is an owl that lands on your face as you gather sticks by the river and you fall into a trance for three days. Such an image thrills and alarms as it can’t be franchised, or easily fetishised because the mandate of suffering is so clearly part of the mix. And that such an encounter could lead god knows where.
What follows is something of what I’ve experienced over almost twenty years as a wilderness rites of passage guide. Fragments of it have appeared in other places, but it’ll lope differently here, shake the snowflakes from its wet, black fur. I hope it provokes and excites and absolutely does not pretend the endeavour is anything less than highly mysterious.
Natural, yes. But mysterious. What follows is a glimpse through the three stages of the process: severance, threshold, return. It is this triad that constitutes the architecture of wilderness rites of passage. There may be ways to crowbar a more above-ground perception of the process, but I suggest that is grabbing hold of the wrong handrail. And I think that’s already been done. That’s village stuff, and you’ve just entered the forest. In fact, there is no handrail at all, save maybe poetics-in-extremis.
We’ll get to the return to the village later. When we get there I’m going to bang on about seemingly antiquated values: compassion, upstandingness, vocation, grace under pressure. That we actually raise our kids. That we live cleanly in our relationship to others. That our enchantments and befuddlements are limited in impact, that we don’t pass them on. The village is essential for the distillation of epiphany into wisdom. Human contact. But I’m not there yet.
Right now I’m defending the strange and usefully dangerous elements of the vigil. The moments that may never sift into daylight illumination but are like a rook pecking on your liver down in the pure animal of your body. Peck peck peck. It’s that pecking that keeps us restless. It’s a good thing to be restless. It’s that kind of thing that gets folks out on the hill in the first place.
To be buffeted by weather, to have hands pink as the flesh of Galway salmon as you splash freezing water in your just-woken face. To be a million nerve endings reaching out to darkness, rain, and white-crack lightning storm. To sleep a-jumble in your clothes because of the freeze, spend weeks without seeing your reflection, with no devices that beep and glow anywhere near. To feel jubilant, grief-struck, maybe even wild.