Ever since the dawn of mankind, we have expressed our recognition and dependency on an unseen realm. Some of the earliest cave paintings are spiritual, in that they demonstrate an awareness of another reality behind this one. For example, the costumed man from Les Trois Freres in the Ariege in France, initially estimated at over 20,000 years old, has been interpreted as showing the Shamanic transition into the spirit world1. The earliest known man-made symbols are `lozenge` or diamond shapes which date from 60,000 years ago in Blombos cave, South Africa which also point to a development of human consciousness beyond the immediate material perception2.
In Europe, most terrestrial habitats succeed to forest if left un-managed, and in Hunter Gatherer societies, this prevalence of forests gave rise to the worship on the tree3. The tree became a symbol of the world axis, or `Axis Mundi`, the link between heaven and Earth.
The dependency tradition continued into the Neolithic period, when standing stones, symbolising the Axis Mundi, replaced trees when nomadic people settled4. However, the worship of the tree spirit is a legacy which has lasted into modern times. The term “touch wood” can be traced back to the practice of carrying a piece of wood in one`s pocket. A `touchwood` embodied the healing powers of the parent tree of the wood. The Rowan was particularly favoured because the berries have a tiny five-pointed star on them, an ancient magical symbol of protection4. Maypole celebrations in Europe, when a tree truck was taken from the forest and brought to the village and set in place amid great merriment, were an expression of tree worship linked with fertility festivals on Mayday. Sometimes, parts of the tree were taken around the houses to spread the blessings of the tree-spirit5.
Despite efforts by the Church to stamp out these practices during the Puritan period of the 17th Century, decoration of churches with greenery on Mayday survived into the early modern period6. And the Green Man, which represents the nature spirit, can still be found in church stonework, both from Medieval and Modern periods.
Reason for the dependency
If we measure the height of individuals, no two will be exactly the same to an infinite number of decimal places, yet we can envisage true equal height abstractly in our mind. We can therefore also imagine true social equality and true justice.
Our experience of imperfection is what makes us recognise perfection. But since we do not fully experience perfection in our life, it becomes in a philosophical sense, a transcendent idea. In the Symposium, Plato describes transcendental beauty:
“First, this beauty always is, and doesn`t come into being or cease; it doesn`t increase or diminish. Second, it`s not beautiful in one respect but ugly in another, or beautiful at one time but not at another, or beautiful in relation to this but ugly in relation to that; nor beautiful here and ugly there because it is beautiful for some people but ugly for others. Nor will beauty appear to him in the form of a face or hands or any part of the body; or as a specific account or piece of knowledge; or as being anywhere in something else, for instance in a living creature or earth or heaven or anything else. It will appear as in itself and by itself, always single in form; all other beautiful things share its character, but do so in such a way that, when other things come to being or cease, it is not increased or decreased in any way nor does it undergo any change.”
Everybody has their own view on what is beautiful. But what Plato was saying was that there exists in a higher realm a beauty which is not relative to personal tastes. It is the primal beauty, unchangeable, beyond shape or form. It simply `is`. The place where this beauty exists would be traditionally referred to as heaven or the unseen realm. But Plato was appealing to our reason. Transcendental `perfect` ideas of beauty, justice and equality can be understood rationally, and point to an invisible reality running concurrently with our own visible world.
Emmanuel Kant described this inaccessible realm as the `Noumenon`, where God, freedom and immortality resided. It was however possible to connect with it through the ideal of human morality, which in the early period of the Enlightenment was still seen as immutable as the laws of physics.
This instinctive recognition of a perfect realm, is according to religious traditions, due to our pre-existence in a primordial Garden of perfection. `The Fall` was the descent from this heavenly realm, and its subsequent veiling to our senses. The desire for fulfilment is rooted in the soul`s yearning to return to Eden. The dependency is therefore a deep desire for reconciliation with the spiritual realm. So religious worship becomes the means to satisfy the sacred longing.
The difficulty in attaining spiritual fulfilment has been expressed in many myths. Most ancient civilisations had a mythical tradition of the `Active door`. This is a narrow passageway or journey through two constricting poles (such as the clashing rocks of Greek myth), which represent the almost impossible feat of transcending the veil7. This crossing point is indicative of human trials of the spirit, or spiritual development, and can also be represented by rungs of a ladder. There is a tradition of the human being travelling upward towards heaven, such as is seen in Chinese, Pictish and Christian symbols of the fish. The Salmon travels upstream from the lower to the upper waters. Part of the symbology of the Axis Mundi is to represent this spiritual ascent.
Dependency on the unseen manifests when we start to recognise the differences in the two realities: the lower world and the higher. A simple analogy of this can be seen with electricity. When an electrical force is created through a voltage it is called a `potential difference` and this creates an attraction between two poles. The connection between the human soul and the Divine is like this. As the differentiation between our state, which is weak and dependent becomes more apparent in comparison to the perfection of the Divine, our connection gets stronger. Our dependency is realised through tribulation and suffering, necessary for spiritual development.
The word `religion` is from Latin religio which means to bind together, which may be seen in the context of binding a group of people together. However, it also relates to the connection between humans and the Creator. In examining the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam we find variations on the same concept of the link between heaven and earth and a transcendent perfection:
“But his delight is in the law of the Lord” Psalms 1:1
“And the light shineth in the darkness” John 1:5
“in accordance with the natural disposition God instilled in mankind” Quran 30:30
Dependency tradition in Literature
In Dostoevsky`s Brother`s Karamazow, Father Zosima says:
“On earth we are as it were astray… Much on earth is hidden from us, but to make up for that we have been given a mysterious hidden longing for our living bond with the other world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. This is why the philosophers say that we cannot apprehend the reality of things on earth.” (II, 6,3)
We can take from this firstly, a reference to the Fall, (on earth we are as it were astray). Then the nature of the soul`s separation from our pre-existent heavenly condition, and subsequent eternal longing to return, and thus dependency is expressed. Finally Plato`s perfect realm of ideas is alluded to, and Kant`s Noumenon (we cannot apprehend the reality of things on earth). Dostoevsky wove into the words of the monk Zosima, the dependency tradition in its many connotations.
In 20th century literature allusions to a sacred reality can be found which are both romantic and existential. In Herman Hesse`s Steppenwolf the hero has this experience:
“..and suddenly the forgotten melody of those notes of the piano came back to me again. It soared aloft like a soap-bubble, reflecting the whole world in miniature on its rainbow surface, and then softly burst. Could I be altogether lost when that heavenly little melody had been secretly rooted within me and now put forth its lovely bloom with all its tender hues? I might be a beast astray, with no sense of its environment, yet there was some meaning in my foolish life, something in me gave an answer and was the receiver of those distant calls from worlds far above.”
Earlier in the novel, the difficulty of maintaining this spiritual harmony is expressed:
“Ah it is hard to find this track of the Divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness…”8
Hesse expresses those moments when we feel the connection, when everything suddenly makes complete sense, as if the universe, and our place in it, is just as it should be. That`s because at that moment we are in harmony with the frequency of higher dimensions. Most of the time we feel an uncomfortable sense of disorder and fragmentation. Sartre describes this feeling in Nausea, whilst sitting in a cafe the hero is:
`.. quietly slipping into the water`s depths, towards fear`.
But when a record is put on the duke box he suddenly feels his `nausea` disappear, `I am touched, I feel my body at rest like a precision machine`.9
Both Hesse and Sartre are describing how music has the power to lift us out of our fragmented state. To galvanise our inner focus. It is the contraction of our senses, and the harmony of musical notes which strengthen the sacred link to the heavenly realm deep within us.
It is often only when we emerge from periods of tribulation that we are able to feel a sense of expansion which allows us to recognise these higher states, to experience the light channelling from above. We tend to get trapped in apathy, depression and boredom and we fail to see our freedom and happiness is always present. In other words the connection is always there, it is our contracted and narrow vision, our weak grip that leaves us fumbling in the dark. Once we are aware that a higher state of awareness is possible, it may be possible to maintain it through raising our consciousness at will. Attention focusing, meditation. Sometimes the sound of a bird can create order out of chaos. This is the sparking of the sacred nexus. Goethe`s Faust is saved from his own suicide by hearing the Easter bells.10
“Hold fast to God`s rope..” Quran 3:103
Recently I have witnessed a number of instances when people, who describe themselves as either Atheistic or Agnostic, saying `touchwood…. `, and feeling the urge to actually touch some wood, like a pine dinner table, before intending some action. For example, they might say “Touchwood, all will go to plan”. This struck me as demonstrating that humans recognise an unseen realm instinctively. More to the point, if there is no wood at hand, they say `touchwood` and tap their heads! Now this action shows that the instinct is far deeper than even tree worship. It is the necessity for some ritualistic action to be performed, in order that some higher power be acknowledged to ensure the unseen forces are in their favour. Then their heart is reassured. We can easily dismiss this as silly superstition that humans have always had. But that is the whole point. Despite the advances of science and technology, and the current fashion for the irreligious, there is a continuity of a dependency tradition on the unseen.
- Wallace-Murphy, T. (2005). Cracking the Symbol Code. Watkins, London
- Lomas, R. (2011). The Secret Power of Masonic Symbols. Fair Winds Press
- Frazer, J. (1922). The Golden Bough. Wordsworth, published 1993
- Bryce, D. (1994). Symbolism of the Celtic Cross. Llanerch Publishers, Feninfach
- Kindred, G. (2003). The Sacred Tree Glennie Kindred. Derbyshire
- Clarke, D. and Roberts, A. (1996). Twilight of the Celtic Gods. Blandford, London, p 113
- Coomaraswamy, A K. Symplegades. Studies in Comparative religion, Winter Edition 1973
- Hesse, H. (1955). Steppenwolf. English Translation. Penguin Books.
- Sartre. Nausea
- Goethe. Faust part I
Figure from 1.