Existence on Earth
What experience of earthly existence do we have, as we gaze up into the heavens for guidance as our ancestors did? The earth lying beneath us, forces upon us a fixed reference point from which to view the universe. This grounded perspective, consequently blinkers and limits our horizons by this fixedness. We are earth bound creatures, who live lives stuck to the earth by the glue of both a real, and an existential, gravity. We look up and wonder at the heavens, pondering upon and imagining, other worlds, other dimensions, other realities, whilst both of our feet are pressed firmly against, and supported by the earth. We dream, in order to escape this existential experience of being earthbound. The Earth is the dominant force shaping our whole conception of what it is to be human.
When we saw photos of the Earth taken from space in the 1960’s, they showed us the Earth for the first time, as this gloriously patterned sphere set against a dark velvet background. Earthly beauty looked so fragile. This prompted a shift in human awareness, more conscious of our interconnectedness with the planet’s eco-system, and the potential damage we may be doing to it. It’s rare to get such a glimpse, to gaze down upon the Earth and see our home from an entirely new perspective. An alien species might comprehend our planet quite differently. Perhaps they'd remark upon its beauty too, or its fortunate position in the solar system by which all sentient life is blessed. It is a planet of magnificent swirling clouds; a planet of azure seas; a planet marbled with minerals; a planet with a silvery embossed moon. But perhaps they’d only notice it’s ugly blemishes, its signs of sickness; overrun by humans, of its crippled,suffering beings, its poverty and inequality, a planet verging on extinction, where vision has been lost and all hopes have been abandoned.
Even though 71% of our planet’s surface is ocean, we still call our planet Earth. Of the 29% that is land, a large part of it is lifeless rock or desert. To say nothing of the fertility of the earth’s soil that is buried out of sight beneath equally inert brick, tarmac or concrete. Our planet is not all covered with the black soiled fertile earth of our imagination. There’s a dry gritty gravitas that the earth brings to everything we do, a determination to survive, to overcome and make something of our lives upon it. We see ourselves as its progeny, caretaker and gardener. Earth sustains us during our life and absorbs us at our death. Human civilisations have been born because of the earth, and do not survive without it. The earth is a spherical life support system like no other. It’s no wonder she’s been called ‘Mother Earth’.
Earth symbolises many things to our imaginations. Most of humanity's earliest religious notions were dreamt up in response to what the earth might bring, and what the earth might take away. What has been discovered from this primitive time are mostly female votive figures. Nature was seen then, and is still seen, as predominantly feminine. An earth that is bountiful, venerable and vengeful. The Earth Mother became like a black hole from which we were expelled at our birth and into which we are sucked back at our death, like some huge cosmic vaginal hoover.
The Earth Mother’s relationship with humanity was both deeply personal and profoundly universal. Mirrored and mired in our experience of the natural world it was nevertheless a precarious volatile relationship. We understood the world less well, with fewer controls over the impact it might have upon us. The Earth Mother may provide us with pleasures and treasures, but might just as easily chose to provide pain and poverty. We lived in fear of what the Earth Mother might do with her vaginal vengeance. Overnight she could make the land barren and humankind infertile. She might betray our trust, withdraw her support, remove all wealth and abundance. Visiting famine, plague and death upon us, of biblical dimensions. The Earth Mother was certainly a patron to humanity, but also an unpredictable bringer of pestilence.
At this point I’d like to make some general observations about the physical location and power invested in those gods and goddesses, which does appear to change overtime. Whilst we were still nomadic hunter gatherers our conceptions of how the gods and goddesses inhabited and influenced the world, was predominantly embodied in the earth, trees, skies and water that surrounded us, the things upon which we depended. With the development of more settled communities, those first identifiably urbanised civilisations emerge. From these towns and cities, the gods and goddesses become more remote, if not alienated. Today this remoteness, has ended in their almost total expulsion from our imaginations. Back then they still had a presence in human lives, but increasingly they were living dissociatively in celestial heavens. Sometimes this distance resulted in them reeking arbitrary havoc upon the world just for fun, or out of spite, or out of some internecine rivalry between the gods themselves. An archetypally masculine way of executing power ensues, of fractious argument, the waging of war and submission to the will of the physically strongest.
The main power brokers in the heavens also transit from being female to male. It’s impossible to know fully why,when or how this happened. Though it is clear that changes in the gender dominance among the gods and goddesses does correspond to developments in the nature of human society. Civilised communities seem to become predominantly realms of male power, where the feminine is invested with less actual power or control. The desire to make reality conform to human will, instead of humanity conforming to the will of the Earth Mother, maybe be a contributory cause of this gender switch. The relative strengths of gods and goddesses correlate with this, and mirror its power struggle. The earth, for a time, remains the realm for minor female spirits, nymphs and semi-goddesses, until what survives of their pagan power and places of worship is usurped or absorbed by an increasingly masculine and singular godhead. Because up in the Heavens, the power that is held by a diminishing number of male gods, eventually becomes compounded into one god, indivisible, omnipotent and on high.
Due to this change in imaginative location, humankind becomes less able to observe the work of the divine, whatever the gender, in the world that surrounds them. The locus of power is intangible, beyond sense, sensibility, or logic, lost in the lofty remoteness of Heaven. The act of creation itself no longer emerges kicking and screaming from out of the Earth Mother’s womb, but is the result of a great spell instigated by an all powerful male god, magically forming human life from out of the mud and slime of the earth. Further demonstrating the increasingly subservient role being given to the earth in the act of creation. The Earth Mother has now become the handmaiden of god.
In the methodology of medieval alchemy, it starts with the ‘Prima Materia’ the blackest of earths. All magical transformations weilded inside the alchemical crucible are created from this earth. which, if perfected, result in ‘The Philosophers Stone’. Through this mysterious talisman the predominantly male alchemist attains the universal wisdom. The understanding of the true purpose of the whole of reality. The alchemist is the medieval equivalent of the ancient oracle or sage, reading heavenly signs in earthly traces. It’s ironic that modern empirical science emerges out of the arcane gibberish of alchemical theses and experiment. The word alchemy is derived from an Arabic word al-kīmīā meaning ‘to cast together’’. Al-kimila’s linguistic origins are Greek, the word chemi or kimi being their name for Egypt or Egyptian, so alchemy can also mean ‘coming from Egypt’. Science owes some of its basic understanding of the properties of chemical elements to alchemy. This lineage probably dating back thousands of years, is still honoured through the word chemistry. The knowledge that comes from Egypt.
Many beautiful richly adorned golden objects have been unearthed from the ground of Egypt.. Sometimes the captivating nature of gold, overshadows more unprepossessing articles with perhaps greater symbolic value. One such odd object, made around 1323 BC, represents a myth that is actually far far older than this. It’s a cast metal effigy, discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, made in the outline of the Egyptian god Osiris. It was moulded hollow, so it could be filled up with Nile mud and planted with seeds. When first sealed up in the impenetrable dark of the newly closed tomb, these seeds grew feebly upwards. Desperately searching for a glimmer of light, they found none and inevitably died. But perhaps the whole purpose of this object was not for it to survive, but to conjure into being, by acting out, a process of earthly renewal. This votive object, performs sympathetic magic for Tutankhamun, a statement of intent, a spell that says something like:~ ‘here are our best wishes for you in the afterlife.’
There is an earthy wisdom woven into the whole life of Osiris. He is said to have been the originator of the spells and methods of mummification to preserve of life, from which the medieval alchemists believed their experiments had their origins. Osiris was created as a god of the earth, who over time develops responsibilities that oversee the transmission of the dead through the underworld, to the heaven beyond. Like Jesus Christ, Osiris’s own macabre death and resurrection becomes the object for a reverential optimistic cult. Through ardent devotion and seeking of his guidance you save yourself from a hell in the hereafter. What follows is the legend of Osiris,a classic folk story, filled with love, jealousy, murder, sex, and primeval symbolism.
Osiris was born of the union between Geb,the god of the earth, and Nut, the goddess of the heavens. Geb eventually passes on his earthly rule to Osiris, who through introducing agriculture and wine making into the land, makes the Egyptian soil fertile. He becomes deeply revered as ‘that eternally good being’,’ that perfect one.’ His brother Set grows increasingly jealous of Osiris’s success as Pharaoh, deciding to assassinate him and take his place. Set has a coffin made that will only fit Osiris. He holds a party, inviting Osiris to attend. During the celebrations there is a competition, in which the coffin is the prize, offered to whoever can fit in it. Many people try and fail. However the moment Osiris lays down in it, Set jumps forward, slams on the lid, locking and sealing it with lead. He throws the coffin into the waters at the Nile Delta, where it floats out to sea.
Set imagines that will be the last he’ll see of his brother. However, Osiris’s wife, Isis, goes in search of her husband’s body and coffin. She finds it on the coast of Lebanon buried within a cedar tree, that is being used as a pillar in a temple. She returns the coffin to Egypt hiding it in the Delta marshlands. Set, whilst out hunting, stumbles across it, reopens the coffin, and violently dismembers Osiris’s body into fourteen parts, scattering them widely throughout the kingdom of Egypt. Once again Isis goes on a search, and locates thirteen of her husbands fourteen lost body parts. She reassembles them, binds them together with cloth, and soaks them in the preservative unguents of mummification. The one part missing is Osiris’s phallus, which has been eaten by a fish. Isis fashions a replacement phallus out of gold, and by turning herself into a bird hovering over Osiris’s body, breathes life back into him. During this restoration of his life-force, Osiris and Isis conceive a child, and thus the falcon headed sky god Horus is born.
Osiris guides deceased souls to an afterlife, but he is also a fertility god, with his phallus frequently shown erect on his mummified body. He is both dead and alive, he died and was reborn, his fertility (represented by his phallus) is lost then symbolically restored. He moves effortlessly back and forth across the boundary between human existence and nonexistence. He was born from the earth, lived on the earth, died on the earth, and was reborn upon the earth. So this metal votive artifact of Osiris,filled up with mud and sown with seeds, is founded on deeper primary anxieties and aspirations surrounding the human condition. As an earth god, Osiris’s life-force can lie dormant, flourish, decay, die and renew itself, and be able to do the same for others. Osiris maps out the course of a human life and our desire for a life beyond death.
For all earthbound creatures this is the cycle of life and death within which we exist. In the King James Bible, it says;’To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven’. Our lives upon the Earth have their seasonal fluctuations, their periods of material, psychological or spiritual dormancy, followed by flourishing,decaying, dying and renewal. We live these periods out ‘under the heavens’ whilst still walking upon the earth. For meaning and purpose we look up to the skies and wonder, we pray for help, guidance or salvation from a deity. We see ourselves as beings existentially separate from both Earth and Heaven. Sandwiched like an insignificant filling in-between the bread of life. Never fully of the Earth, and never fully of the Heavens. Consequently neither fully alive, nor fully dead, even whilst in the midst of life. Too conscious of that unknown point where what we know as ME will terminate. A point where our tangible presence upon the earth becomes an intangible absence. Some may plead to the heavens, and others will mourn upon the earth. We create gods and goddesses in our image to make sense of our brief time upon the earth, and when we die, they die, and everything else remaining grieves in silence.