Chaos of Samhain Transforms the Celtic Soul

By C. Austin

You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.
-- Nietzsche

With November come the shadows. From October's eroding edge we have descended into the season of Samhain, the realm of chaos, the darkness at the beginning.

Before darkness was consigned to hell, it was fertile. In many creation myths and in the worldview of the Celts, darkness is the original form. It is rich, unbounded chaos that gives birth to order. Recognizing that darkness begets light, the Celts began their day at twilight and their year in November with winter preceding summer.

In our era, light trumps darkness. We pour such light into the dark that the stars fade and creatures of the night lose their bearings. We have no season or festival that recognizes darkness, only winter, when nature goes to "sleep." Chaos is for those without goals, money, the proper citizenship, or enough sense. But chaos, like nature, does not simply go to sleep, it goes underground.

The underground is an interesting place, although virtually no one willingly goes there. It is the place where things rot, putrefy and, of course, crap flows downhill, so you have that as well. We are clean people. We have white teeth and pure souls, so our soiled thoughts and checkered secrets have to crumble their way down too.

Few of us deal with the large secrets of our lives during daylight. The large secrets are the things you couldn't help, they just happened. History created a wound so deep that your life, almost imperceptibly, orbits slowly around it year after year.

Perhaps you weren't heard, or weren't held, and thus life became a sifting for words, for pieces of soul and a safe place to put them. Perhaps you were never seen, which caused you to grow big and colourful to hide your invisibility. Or the damage was so hot and loud that you still seek its embrace later in life. Decorated loneliness, carrying water in a sieve - it is your essence, for better or worse. It is authentic and it is dark.

The alchemists called this essence the "prima materia," the original material. Alchemy is a system for observing substances and their differences as well as their relationships with each other. Aristotle called the prima materia, "something that isn't there," because it is unrefined and because its potential lies within itself, to emerge rather than be imposed. The shadowy prima materia is also known as the radix ipsius or the "root of itself" for the same reason - its form lies within and requires a growth process to develop it.

Though arcane, alchemy yielded invaluable insights into scientific and psychological processes. Alchemists such as Sir Isaac Newton had an enormous influence on science and the arts. Of all alchemical ideas though, none is more famous than that of the "lapis philosophorum" or the Philosopher's Stone.

Enigmatic and known by many names, the Philosopher's Stone can "dispel all corruption, heal all disease and bestow youth and wisdom." It is a "stone that is not a stone," and it can be as treacherous as it is miraculous. The Philosopher's Stone is brilliant, exalted and divine and it can only be fashioned from that very dark stuff, the prima materia.

Like the Celts, alchemists believe in darkness at the beginning. They call it "nigredo," the black chaos in which the "old, outmoded state of being is killed and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima materia." Nature can only restore itself after first dying away and we are no different.

Depression, alcoholism, job loss, illness, divorce - these are all disturbingly common harbingers of nigredo. Like the winds of November, tossing off what leaves remain, chaos supplies the disorder needed to break down our defenses. And that is what is needed - a dissolution of order - of the old rules and deceptions that keep us, again and again, from seeing our original wound. Psychologist Carl Jung noted "All error in the art arises because men do not begin with the proper substance."

Nigredo carries with it the opportunity to understand that disarray and our own vulnerability are at least as valuable as order. But in its role as the universal solvent, chaos also brings seemingly unending pain, fear and bitterest disappointment. It is the "nox profunda," the profound night, and from it, the prima materia begins to take form.

To the alchemists, the prima materia is both a physical and psychological substance. It is the matter from which everything is created. The first forms to rise from the prima materia are the four elements, water, fire, air and earth. Each of these carries an alchemical property of another element within it. For example, both air and fire can share heat.

Like factions of the human mind, the four elements are eternally warring with each other, overcoming, taking priority and then receding. But it is the fifth element, the prima materia, that flows through them all. That part of ourselves we seek to conceal, to forget and that we cast into darkness - the piece that we must navigate chaos to recover - is the very part that can turn our grey, leaden lives into gold.

In the heat and pressure of the alchemical process, the elements, like our most cherished misconceptions, begin to lose their identity. Upon release from their rigid form, they sense the similarities among themselves and rotate to take on the attributes of those elements to which they were formerly most opposed. That which is reviled is loved, that which is trapped is finally released.

In Alchemic, Buddhist, Celtic and other belief systems, the point where four territories unite is the area of divine chaos. It is a churning wheel where original material is ceaselessly being reborn, burned away and born again. It is the Tao, the course of things and perpetual change. It is universality - the lowly prima materia transformed into the Philosopher's Stone, a vast nothing that is everything, "a stone that is not a stone."

On a hill called Uisneach in County Westmeath, Ireland, lays another stone. It is a limestone boulder called Aill na Mireann, the "Stone of Divisions," named so because it marks the mythological centre where the four divided provinces of Ireland unite.

From our world into the next Aill na Mireann stands at the door. Where some find chaos, others find grace. The darkness of November reestablishes order. To the Celts, who so richly understood the joys and sorrows of life and the value of that renewing darkness, it is the end and the beginning.

I now know that in the beginning, chaos was ignited by an immense burst of laughter.
-- Rene Daumal


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