Tongues of Flame: custom pyrography & magic to discriminating musicians & magicians. Tattoo & Hoodoo for that Voudou that you do.
IN MEMORIAM: FLAME & MEMORY II
The following are pyrography memorials, in cedar and red oak. The narratives have been edited to removed all identifying information, out of deference to their families. Where specific information has been retained, it is because the spirits have spoken ambiguously enough that only those already familiar with the circumstances could decipher it.
I started this piece with the following information and requests. This was to be a memorial to a man who died young, the son of a woman of power in the West. Those commissioning it wanted it to include images of the Rocky Mountains, as well as wolf and elk tracks (his totems), and a reference to muzzle-loaded weapons, which he loved. The wood, a length of cedar, was donated for the memorial, a piece of kindling shaped by the blows of the axe.
Initially, it was my intention to plane and sand the surface smooth, as a better canvas for the images. When I held the wood, however, it spoke to me, and forbade it. The spirit of the cedar said “Death does not leave smooth surfaces. It strikes like the axe, splitting wantonly. It is time that wears smooth. Death is, for those remaining, violence and violation, and the shapes with which they make their peace with loss must be laid over the ragged fragments of what remains. You will do the same.” There would be no sanding.
Cedar is itself a holy wood, long consecrated to mourning, to purification, to comfort and guidance. The shape of the wood was also significant to me, smoothly ridged and furrowed like canyon walls, colored like a western sunset, smelling like ceremony under the hot stylus. The hole in the center could not have been more appropriate to the subject matter, for more than the merely obvious references to grief and absence. Among the western Nations, it has long been traditional to “kill” the vessels which accompany the souls of the dead on their journey by placing a hole in them. Supernatural beings, such as “Elk Who Does Not Die”, who are invoked here as companions and guides on the journey are represented as having holes or missing organs in various locations. Then there is the Sipapu, or hole of emergence, by which we ascend to whatever worlds come next in the evolutionary journey. But we will return to these themes in greater detail as I address the symbolism of the piece.
From the first moments of praying over, and working on, this piece, I have been powerfully impressed by two clarities: One is that this soul has begun its journey in a good way, without regret or suffering. This one knows his way home. The pain here (and I have trodden only the edges of it, a vast and suffocating grief, like struggling to breathe; but clean, for all its depth) is for those left behind. The second has been the presence of the Gan, the Great Powers of the Mountains, blindingly holy, fiercely pure, and lovingly indifferent to the flickering world around them. For reasons I do not begin to understand, these great Powers have taken an interest in this soul, and claim it as one of Their children. There are no more powerful guardians and guides in the long climb between worlds than These.
It was in the midst of Their overwhelming Presence that the vision came, of a silhouette, like a man formed of daylight. He stood just on the other side of an aperture framed by spruce boughs. Dazzling peaks burned in the air behind him. I record here what I was told:
(A bright light stood before me and declaimed;
On the death of a man who loved mountains)
“I would speak of mountains and of death
Death is a mountain
All our days lived in its shadow
All our footsteps taken in its foothills
But in the end, this is only living
It is death that is the mountain,
The ultimate and only real adventure
Small hearts do not seek mountains
Mile beyond mile of long and brilliant air
It takes courage to face the gulfs
Measuring oneself against forever
Mountains teach, they clarify; distill
They set you free
They do not care you love them
Or love you back
They do not carry
To love mountains is to love the struggle
Onward toward some dreaming summit
Against the pull of all we love below
And such is dying, if we are among
The lucky, and the blessed, and the brave
Those who love mountains
Oh, how we climb! We climb!”
The piece is burned on all six sides. As a medicine piece, it is appropriate that the Power should speak in all directions, so that a continual prayer would be offered, whatever its position, and so that the powers of all the worlds should be acknowledged and their assistance implored, both for the spirit having flown and for those who remain.
The mountains represented here are Mt. Blanca and the surrounding peaks, as seen from the San Isabel National Forest. They are framed on either side by the images of Gan dancers among the clouds. “Gan” is the Apache name of these Powers, the souls of the peaks, and their Guardians. They are also known as the “Defenders of the Faith”, the guardians of tradition. I have walked among these Beings, both in flesh and spirit, and tasted the smallest sliver of Their unspeakable grandeur. While They are beyond any power of man to compel or conjure, They sometimes, for reasons known only to Themselves, take an interest in individual human beings, who are then marked (not only in this life) as the Children of the Peaks. --- is one of these, moving through the world of dim shapes and half-remembered purpose with a kiss blazing on his brow like the morning star. He will reach the peak to which he ascends.
The mountains have their messengers, as well. For the indigenous nations, the guide among mountains is wolf. His is the voice by which the pain and sorrow of Earth rise to the ear of Heaven. It is a peculiarity of Wolf medicine, that this extraordinary guide forgets himself, and his purpose, until the need of another recalls it to him. Those who have wolf as their totem are often the same, full of wisdom and power they are not conscious of, until someone around them is in need. Then they amaze themselves by the clarity and insight that comes pouring out. Such unconscious holiness is powerful, and those who possess it (or are possessed by it) usually accomplish more than they could ever have imagined in their time on this world, leaving behind them a trail of quiet miracles and gently mended lives.
To the right of wolf lies a spilled powder horn. It is traditional among many nations to break the instruments of the hunter upon his death, and the image of spilled ammunition is an appropriate metaphor for the loss of youth’s potential fires
Beyond the streams of darkness which flow beside the fallen powder horn are seen a series of images, drawn largely from the Colorado rock art of the so-called “Fremont Period” The texture of the wood here is that of an arroyo. It seemed an appropriate place to invoke those ancestors to whom the land --- loved was sacred before all others, the ancients who first walked in these mountains and canyons, and who learned the names, the natures and the voices of the spirits of the land. The horned figures in particular are prehistoric depictions of the Mountain Gods, which find curious echoes in places like the rock art of North Africa. Thus the narrative of the piece is framed within the Gan, as is the story of this soul.
One of the greatest losses of this civilization, as it has repudiated the Powers of the natural world, has been the loss of understanding of the roles of those powers in the growth and evolution of the human soul. The Spirits of places and of geographic features, as well as of the four-leggeds and other natural phenomena, are teachers, guides, and essential characters in the drama of the spiritual journey. Who and what we are is shaped by them to a greater degree than most of us are now aware of. The land dreams us, and the dreams we carry help to shape what we become, in this world and those beyond. It is only the arrogance of man which blinds him to the fact that, while he shapes the earth, he is shaped by it. That while he moves among those who walk in it, they move within him. We have a place within the pattern, which shapes the pattern of our individual lives, which extend far beyond anything that is visible to us from here.
Central to the piece as both sculpture and poetry is the hole. This is death, the sacred absence, the portal where, according to Navajo and Apache tradition, “the black and white rise up together.” It is only through the presence of death, that coherence and pattern are achieved. Death gives meaning to everything we do, and do not do. Given an eternity in which to act, sooner or later all choices must be acted upon. The actions of an immortal are thus meaningless, the inevitable playing out of infinite possibilities. Only limits make choices meaningful. Only death gives our days their flavor in our mouths.
The awareness of death is the foundation of wisdom. Death is an advisor who never lies, who accurately and honestly tells us the worth of any decision. It is the knowledge that I will die. On the day of my death, how will I feel about this? The answer to this question is always an honest one. This is what we mean by the expression, “It is a good day for dying.” Not that we seek death, or as some meaningless boast about courage. It means, if I die today, I am living the life I meant to live. I am who I meant to be. My life will have been complete. The best preparation for a good and meaningful death is a good and meaningful life.
The piece is framed, along both lengths, by tracks of wolf, and of elk. The role of wolf as guide into the high places has already been addressed elsewhere in this narrative. Here it is enough to note that the tracks are those of a walking wolf, confidently pacing along well-known routes. The role of elk as guide and teacher will be addressed at the end of the work.
On one end of the timber is figured the red-headed woodpecker. This image is taken from Cherokee mythology, a version of one of the oldest stories men know. Anthropologists call it the “Orpheus” myth, after the Greek version, but it is found among human beings all over the world. In the Cherokee tale, which forms part of a much longer epic, the Daughter of the Sun is the first being to die. The priests and priestesses of the Cherokee nation send a delegation to the spirit world to bring Her back. One young man of the group, in love with the young Woman, impatiently opens the chest which holds her spirit on their journey back to the land of the living. The spirit is released into the world as the red-headed woodpecker, and the division of the living and the dead is made permanent.
This myth speaks to some of the most basic truths about death and grieving in the human condition. It affirms the power of love to bridge the worlds, and teaches that such bridges are by nature temporary, and cannot remain. It teaches that death is a process which itself changes the nature of our relationships to those we have lost. It is a teaching about the necessity of change, of the influence of time on love, however steadfast. Love remains. But it is not the same. It cannot be, while we remain among the living. To believe otherwise dishonors life and death alike.
On the opposite end is burned Coyote. What wolf is to the high places, coyote is to the barren places, the wildernesses in which the spirit wanders while in grief. There are ancient stories about how, when Wolf first died, his little brother Coyote stole away with Wolf’s heart in his mouth. Coyote is cunning madness, the craziness with which we are touched when someone we love is taken. To survive the journey through the valley of the shadow, it is a good idea to let Coyote carry one’s heart. That is, to indulge the madness of grief, to trust the process of mourning, even when it leads into apparent insanity. Only by trusting the “little madness”, by giving ourselves to our sorrow, are we capable of healing from it. Coyote is a scavenger, a devourer of the past. Pain that is not offered up, acknowledge and acted out, will rot and fester over time, and eventually poison the wells and springs of the spirit. Follow Coyote into the shimmering haze and dry exhaustion of your grief. This consummate survivor has much to teach those who mourn.
Finally we come to the figure of elk. Those who have studied Native traditions will be familiar with Elk as the type of charisma, of charm and sexual magnetism. Elk medicine is the power to bewitch the beloved, to draw the eye and heart of the object of desire. Elk sings to draw his mate, and his song has great power. It is elk who taught men to make music with which to enchant women, according to the stories. There is indeed some anthropological evidence that music may be the source of the human capacity for speech, and the urge to make it part of our ancestral mating behaviors. Those with strong elk medicine tend to be “lucky in love”, as well as the hunt, and may be musically gifted. This is elk medicine as it relates to the concerns of every day life, as it manifests in the world of human relationships. This is elk-among-men, the first elk.
Those who hunt Elk long enough to learn His ways, however, find clues to another role. In the words of Joseph Epes Brown, the biographer of the great prophet Black Elk, “Recorded information on the Oglala’s observations and accompanying views of the elk indicate special appreciation of the bull animal in particular. Among those qualities specifically singled out are his strength, speed, and courage. The powerful form of his massive antlers, and the skill with which he is able to travel with such horns through even the thickest cover, were discerned and appreciated.” To the hunter, elk was among the worthiest opponents and most formidable of the Natural Powers, a valuable totem and powerful guide. This is elk-as-he-is, the second elk.
But there is another component to Elk’s power, which requires some deeper effort to penetrate. This is Elk Who Does Not Die. This figure appears in the mythology of numerous Native American cultural traditions, and was often represented symbolically with elk teeth, which will remain when all other body parts, including bones, have decomposed and turned to dust. They outlast the lives of men, and have become symbols of eternity. Elk Who Does Not Die is always represented with a hole or mirror in his body, as a token of his essential transcendence of the temporal world. Only what can die is complete in this world. Elk Who Does Not Die is the Power responsible for enforcing the terms of the contract that all hunters, and ultimately all human beings, must come to terms with, that death comes when it is time. He punishes hunters who disregard death’s balance, or who act to cut short the rightful spans of their prey. He is the Guardian of the Balance, and the Wisdom which knows that there are limits even to death’s power. Elk Who Does Not Die is the third elk.
Finally, there is a convention in Cheyenne mythology, in which animals questing for the mountains give away their eyes to reach their goal, relying on the vision of greater powers and guides to carry them safely onward, and upward. The hollow eye of the Elk is a symbol of the give-away, by which the soul entrusts itself to larger currents, and is lifted up by them. It is the mark of one who has ascended. So let it be here. So it is.