The Ladder of Ascent:
When asked to give this talk I was asked to consider talking about something uplifting and positive to begin the day. Dwelling on the idea of uplift, in my mind there began to form the idea of a talk on ideas of spiritual ascent in a pagan context.
From there my mind wandered upward and outward and I began to see one of those maps of the heavens which you find in mediaeval and Renaissance books, with the earth at the centre, the seven visible planets above, and beyond them the stars of the night and the constellations of the night sky. But I was aware even as I was thinking about these things that there were throughout the myths and legends of many people tales of beings who had ascended spiritually to the stars bringing back with them treasures of a spiritual kind. So my theme is how particular individuals can ascend, how they can leave the realm of earth and flesh behind and how they can return with spiritual treasure for their own use and the use of others.
There are two great modes of initiation which have come down to us from the ancient world, firstly the Earthly or Chthonic and the secondly Stellar or starry wisdom. The first, the Earthly is linked with matters earthy and earthly, with the turning year, of generation, growth, harvest, nourishment and then regeneration via the seed. It is usually accomplished as near to the earth and nature as possible,
It is probably fair to say that most of the practices and formal initiations of a range of Modern Pagan traditions are principally of this type. The Wiccan and Traditional Witch initiatory paths are of this type as are those of Modern Heathens and Modern Druids. Of course with any generalisation of this type it is possible to find exemptions to the rule. But from my knowledge of Modern Paganism as it is practised I think it is fair to say that most initiation is mostly an earthly initiation. It is about things that you can see and hear, feel and smell. It is about passing time, the wheel of the year, and the steady progress both of the seasons, and of individuals life and death.
The second and stellar initiation which was also present amongst ancient pagans employs the motif of the ladder to the stars. This may be a stairway to the stars or a tall tree to the stars, or even a beanstalk to the stars. It concerns itself with matters of eternity, the four base elements of ancient science, the circling planets, the stars, particularly those of the zodiac aligned along the ecliptic, which are the constellations used in astrology. Here we are dealing with things which are certainly mutable and mutating, but which arrange and rearrange themselves as in a dance which is eternal and unchanging in the great scheme of things.
It is with the second stellar initiation that this talk concerns itself. I want to lead you this morning upwards and outwards, away from the earth, passing by the planets and towards the stars. I want to show you that as Pagans, you too can tread this path in a way that is completely in accord with our pagan heritage.
It is probably worth also saying what I do not want to do. I do not want you to stop believing in the model of the planets and the cosmos revealed by modern science. The model of the cosmos that we find through science has been tested by observation and falsification. Some of you may have even been up there to where the blue of the sky meets the dark of the night. You may have seen the stars at midday for yourselves.
But I will be thinking about asking you to consider using for spiritual purposes the model of the cosmos that served our pagan ancestors well but has been superseded for practical use. I will invite you to consider the old cosmic model as a framework or armature on which can be hung a number of profound insights into the human condition, insights which have helped our civilisation develop in the way it has, insights which have kept a pagan character to our thought even when encased within a scheme of Christian thought.
The ancient model of the cosmos had the world at its centre, and humanity at the centre of that world. Everything centred itself on human beings. Humans were the star of the show. For them the sun shone. For them the planets crossed the sky. For them the stars were laid out in all their glory. Beyond the stars there was a realm, without and beyond space and time in which dwelt a variety of beings, who collectively were known as the gods and goddesses, pure spirits and energies for the universe, who each in their own particular area, articulated the way that the universe worked both on the microcosmic human level and the macrocosmic celestial level.
If you look at this picture you will see the whole system laid out. It is one of many that show a similar view. At the bottom you can see the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. Beyond them is a realm called aether which was thought of as the quintessence the distillation of the previous four. That realm was the first to which everyday humanity could not aspire, so bound up as they were in their mundane affairs. But the pure and perfect, those no longer tied to the mundane world could access this world by means of ritual and meditation.
A little bit more explanation would probably be in order at this point. How did the planets stay in the sky? Bear in mind that the idea of gravity was not known. We have to wait for Isaac Newton for that idea. Instead the circling planets were thought to be mounted on transparent crystal spheres, each of which revolved independently driven by a prime mover. The last sphere was the sphere of the stars. The stars were not thought to shed their own light but were thought to be minute reflectors of the sun. Beyond the stars was what was called primum mobile, the prime mover, the first cause or first mover. It was this primum mobile that made the planets move and the crystal spheres to rotate. Although of course if you know anything about the night sky the stars do not move in unison
Moreover it was thought that if you could ascend to the level of the aether that each planet made its own sound and that those sounds combined together to produce what was known as the music of the spheres. At the time it was thought that earthly music was or should be a reflection of the heavenly music of the spheres, an important fact if you like listening to early music.
Ingenious as all this is, and redundant as all this is, I will not spend the rest of the talk considering matters of ancient cosmology and science. The reason for which I brought this to your attention was because it was and indeed is a frame or an armature on which a many spiritual ideas can be laid. It served that purpose in ancient Pagan times. It served that purpose during the Christian Centuries, it can serve that purpose now when Christianity is on the wane. Redundant it may be as a scientific system, useful it still is as a ladder of spiritual progress.
Let us think for a moment about ladders and stairways to the heavens. They are virtually universal at whatever time and whenever place we look. At the very beginning of Paganism in the ancient world they were there. In the ancient cities of the Near East we see from the beginning temples built along steps and ramps. The Ziggurats were places for planet observation, planet worship and planet contact. In ancient Egypt the earliest pyramids tended to be stepped pyramids their form like a giant stairway to the stars. In later Egypt pyramids tended to become star reaching machines by which the soul of the Pharaoh could be projected from inside the pyramid towards a final starry resting place amongst the star dwelling gods and goddesses.
In Jewish mythology we have Jacobs Ladder, a ladder by which souls rose and descended. The prophet Daniel ascended to the heavens in a chariot or Merkavah, something which is still the object of profound meditation amongst Jewish Kabbalists today. There he saw a hierarchical heaven laid out before him. In post Christian times we find the Book of Enoch whereby the prophet Enoch travels to the heavens in a similar conveyance.
I have found a large number of references to a similar belief in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Beginning in the work of Plato a whole series of later Roman writers conceive of outstanding individuals being able to travel upwards to the heavens in spirit, via the planetary spheres.
And let us not forget the Americas where in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations we find stepped pyramids again. At its final stages in Aztec Mexico we find pyramids built with enormous staircases by which priests and their sacrificial victims ascended to the heavens. We find a detailed star knowledge and a civilization whose very existence was ruled by the configuration of the night sky and by solar and lunar eclipses.
In Muslim Sufism the civilisation which followed and took on much of the knowledge and enlightenment of the ancient world we find a similar ladder of ascent. Over a hundred stages of spiritual progress in Sufism are sometimes visualised as stepped blocks the last of which is unity with god. Sometimes a circle is visualised going from the microcosm of the individual human being to the macrocosm of the cosmos around the circle individual rise and fall sometimes nearer to god sometimes farther.
If you look further to the civilisations of Hinduism and Buddhism you will see similar depictions. If you look to those indigenous peoples categorised as shamanistic you will find sacred trees and mountains to be ascended. The motif of the spiritual ladder or stair or tree or mountain is near universal.
But you may be asking what has all this to do with me a pagan in 2011? How can this be useful to me? If it doesn't exist that way, why bother. That is the subject for the rest of this talk.
Mystical experience is not something which is often talked about in the context of Modern Paganism. Modern Paganism is seen as a practical and earth-based spiritual path. If something is not close to the earth it doesn't as yet have much of a place in Modern Paganism. But I hope that I have shown that the idea of a spiritual ascent is common to many if not most ancient religions, some pagan some not. Without this dimension, which is demonstrably part of Ancient Paganism, Modern Paganism can seem to outsiders as obsessed with the recreation of old ways, with arts and crafts and with the more delightful parts of nature, which may be fine for some but not for all.
What follows is drawn from my own practice, sometimes alone, sometimes with a spiritual partner, and sometimes with groups. It has been tried and tested. It works at least for the individuals with whom I have been in contact.
What do most of us do every morning virtually without thinking about it? We stop sleeping and we get up. We pass from the realm of flickering images which is the world of dream to the solid world of reality. We arise from our bed of sleep and meet the world refreshed by our sleep. It is not as if sleep is wrong or a waste of time. In sleep we encounter our nature both the image which we present to the World and our deeper and sometimes darker nature.
But what if our everyday life was a kind of sleep. What if we have awakened to the World with its demands and its pleasures but have not awakened to a higher spiritual world, a world just out there, a world available to us if we but try to awaken to higher things.
The ladder of ascent is a way to that higher world. It is a way of concentrating our spiritual resources not on one giant leap to self enlightenment, gnosis or knowledge, but gradually step by step, with time to pause and ponder each step of the way. At the very least following this path will broaden our knowledge and deepen our commitment to our path. At best it will make us truly enlightened individuals, ascended beings, dwellers in the pure light to be found in the high places.
So you can each day, or as often as you can do, think about ascending upwards towards your better spiritual nature. Adopt a Culture of the Spirit that becomes for you a second nature, part of you do, part of what you are and do it in a pagan way. Why a pagan way. For this reason. Ladders of ascent are characteristic of most religions, most religions have a way to the stars, most religions have a programme that will help you advance onwards and upwards, but for most religions this advance is accomplished by a programme of ever greater austerities, ever greater punishments and denials of the body. That is not the pagan way. Nor is it the pagan way to draw up a list of sins, natural urges for the most part, which you then spend your life trying not to give into.
The great error of the monotheistic religions is to assert that you can get to a heaven, usually a heaven in the sky by means of self denial and good works alone. The pagan way is different. The Pagan way is by an encounter with Nature and transcendence through Nature. The pagan way is not to say Nature is your enemy, but nature is your friend. And in this opinion I am supported by science: (refer to article the science of the seven deadly sins).
That is all very well you might say but it is all a little formless all a little vague. What do I really need to do. The answer to that is that there are many potential programmes of working. But I have made a choice and this is my way.
My way is to use a programme of meditation and ritual practice which revolves around working with the elements, the planets and the stars. The planets and the stars I use in their Greco-Roman form, but there is no reason in principle why you should not work with say Egyptian and Norse Star Forms.
So what is the aim and objective of the ladder of spiritual ascent? In many pagan cultures it seems to me the objective of the journey is to ascend to the realm of the gods and goddesses and become like them. Not to become deities not to be a god or goddess for along that road lies madness, but to become as nearly as possible god and goddess like. The way to the stars, which is the way to the gods is a spiritual ascent towards perfection, not perfection in only one departments only of the spirit but through progressive encounters with the various deities the object of which is to become perfect in all departments and not just one.
There is one aspect of ancient paganism that does need highlighting so different is it from the type of approach adopted by the great monotheist religions of which Judaism, Islam and Christianity are examples. This difference concerns what one might call the ends of religious life. For the ancient pagan the supreme value in life was the Life Force itself, that which animates and sustains us.
This force has many names even today. We call it vital energy, the life force, elan vital, that which makes us feel alive and so on. It has its opposite. We feel drained of energy, we feel unfortunate, and we feel sapped of life, and so on. For the ancient Pagan, that which the gods and goddesses could give is above all various expressions of this life energy, in other words Vitality. The word itself Vitality come from the Latin Vita which translates as Life. For the ancient pagans that which the gods can give is vitality of various, an empowered life of various sorts.
So we have a model here in which our pagan gods and goddesses are non judgemental. They do not award marks to be redeemed in an afterlife for doing or avoiding certain actions. But they do empower both individually and as a member of society.
Individual empowerment can take many forms. It is our personality, our desires and our memory. It can indeed be expressed by our possessions. It is the clothes we stand up in and the house we live in. But it is also more intangible things
It is our family if we have one. It is part of a man or woman's life, it is part of what empowers them, it makes them what they are. It can also be the area where people feel disempowered if things go wrong.
Our connections are part of our vitality. I hope that as a result of today you will feel revitalised by being together with all these people, who share so many aims and aspirations with you. You may make new friends and acquaintances. They will add something to you. You may buy something from one of the many stalls. That too has the power to add to what you are. An object in the view of the ancient pagan world can have its own vital force its On Lay.
Let us look for a moment at the gods and goddesses that we might honour as part of a spiritual ascent.
Our Solar aspect is expressed by the pride we feel in ourselves, the positive aspect which we project to the world. The vital force of love and passion can be expressed by Venus. Mars is the martial energy which makes us compete and battle for success. Lunar energy covers amongst other things, the renewal and refreshment which we gain from sleep and anything which arises from the unconscious. Our standing in the world, our relation to the many groups and organisations in which we participate is our Jovial aspect, the benefits which we can drive from Jupiter. Our various commercial dealings, our investments if we have any, in a house, home and family are the realm of Mercury. Finally there are the energies of Saturn of slow organic growth and of the energy we gain from casting aside the hindering and unnecessary.
Let us assume that you wished to follow this path. What would you need to do? Well,,if you are following a Pagan Path or a Wiccan Path or a Traditional Witchcraft Path, your traditional and existing ways of casting and uncasting a circle should be fine. Although the processes for opening and closing a heathen hearth are different, they too should suffice. If you like to use a communion in the middle of your rite that too is fine.
You may however wish to add some elements which are not present in your normal rites. It is a good practice to establish where and when a planet will appear in the sky and tailor your ritual to its rising or setting. This can be easily done by downloading a stellarium Program for your computer, indeed the one that I use is called Stellarium. It is free and very useful. You may wish to add a metal to your altar. For instance silver for the moon, gold for the sun, or tin for Jupiter. An object made of the metal is a good idea, provided it is suitable to the work in hand, You may choose to make what is called a talisman, which is at its simplest level a sign for the planet which you are working with.
But what of the stars. They have their own law and correspondences. The most important of these is the scheme of planetary houses running along the line of the ecliptic. These houses in a very artificial way are the stuff of popular and newspaper astrology. In this method of proceeding Twelve houses are used of equal size, although the houses are not equal in size in the real night sky. They also are equatorial, so to speak centred on an imaginary equator. I have always felt that this arrangement is artificial and I prefer to use the real sky as it presents itself to me in the night sky.
Nonetheless a great deal of ancient pagan lore is wrapped up in the astrological books of the ancients, in particular two, the Astronomica of Manillus and the Tetrabiblios of Ptolemy. Both describe ancient astrology and both are useful possessions of any pagan astrologers. In a similar way to that of the planets, the astrological houses can be evoked and worked with.
There are two other systems that you may also find useful, particularly so if you are a pagan witch. The first of these are related to the age of the moon, that is the number of days from the appearance of the new moon. Each day of the moon has its own correspondences and its own spirits. Although this is popular amongst Dianic and other moon worshipping witches the oldest use of days of the moon is as far as I know amongst the Jewish People.
The other and I think more interesting system is that of the so called Lunar Mansions. In the Lunar Mansions the sky is divided into 28 or 29 sections in each of which the moon dwells every day. There are three completely separate systems of Lunar Mansions. The Chinese and Indian Systems need not detain us here. The Arabic system which has its roots in late antiquity is the most pagan in character and goes back to the Sabians, a semi pagan people who survived well into the first few centuries of Islamic Rule with much of their Pagan star lore intact.
So having given some thought to the night sky either the artificial night sky of astrology or the real night sky as it presents itself to you, what next. The more powerful technique which I use is evocation and invocation of each of the planetary powers in turn. I wont go into the details of the ritual. That might be a good subject for a workshop some time, also knowledge is fairly widespread of that way of working. I use a crystal for meditation and for manifestation of the planetary spirit but that is because I find myself able to scry in a crystal with some ease.
Other possibilities are present if we look into our pagan past. One technique which an individual can use is meditation linked to sleep, where the things seen in sleep and dreaming are thought of as manifestations of the spirits of the planets. Here you need a ritual linked to meditation followed by sleep. And don't forget your dream book to record the results. In the Ancient World different types of sleep had different names and this type was known as a somnium coeleste or sacred dream.
Another aspect that has a large literature in ancient sources is the preparation of a talisman or planetary seal to approach the planetary deity of your choice. If you want to look directly at ancient sources there is a book called the Picatrix an early Arab production which we think has much of the star lore of the Sabians and Harranians. The Picatrix tells you a good deal about the preparation of different talismans. But I would also recommend Nigel Jacksons book “Celestial harmonies”, which is a modern but scholarly approach to the same area of Ancient Knowledge, and will get you going if you want to prepare talismans.
In the title of my talk I mentioned the elements. Contacting elemental beings is a procedure not without risk if it is done carelessly. But of great benefit if done in an orderly fashion. Having studied the matter, it is certainly true to say that elemental lore had its beginning in the Classical World. However the practice greatly expanded during the Middle Ages without losing its essentially pagan character. I shall not say more about it now but by all means speak to me about it afterwards.
My inner critic which has been extensively evoked today is saying, hang on what about if I just want to contemplate the stars through a telescope, to stand out under the night sky and look up seeing the stars unaided by anything but my knowledge. That too I have to say is fine. According to ancient doctrine the stars are shedding their light down on you and giving you the powers of their influence whether you like it or not. It is perhaps the purest form of spiritual ascent, one without preconceptions, guided only by what is there and what is in the individual to reflect upon what he or she sees.
The stars and classical planets are part of our pagan heritage. The idea of ascent is part of our pagan heritage and is not just the property of the monotheist religions. The Realm of the mystical is a legitimate and even necessary part of any religion. You too can ascend spiritually, leaving the cares of the World behind becoming at one with the stars and the Cosmos.
Given as a talk at Mildenhall Megamoot: 7 May 2011