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The language of the birds
I enjoyed another visitation today. Another close encounter.
This bird, unlike the last (‘An extraordinary gathering of angels’), had something to say —
My persistently vocal visitor reminded me to return here to an unfinished theme: a book that I am reading, Symbols of Sacred Science. A chapter titled ‘The Language of the Birds’. And, most importantly, the subject of rhythm.
This book has inspired me with many thoughts, and understandings. New insights, about this blog. About its titular portmanteau — “Psalmistice”. The symbolisms embedded in its winged logo. And, most profoundly, about my intuitions regarding the (dare I say) spiritual aspect of the silence I hear beneath the beat of a V-twin Harley-Davidson engine.
But not just any H-D engine. Only the old, pre- “noughties” engine.
When I first began searching for a Harley-Davidson, I rode a number of new, and recent models. All, I found to be lacking something. An indefinable something. But within moments of my first experiencing an old, pre-2000, rigid mount, 80 cubic inch Evolution engine, I knew.
This, was it.
The right feeling.
Felt clearly, through each touchpoint with the machine.
Not a vague shaking; that isolated, strangely separated, exaggerated rocking motion, as with a newer rubber mount. Not smooth, bland, sterile, lifeless, as with a newer “counter-balanced” rigid mount.
And so it came to be, that after a long search abroad, I was blessed to acquire a 1995 model collector’s machine, with just 340 miles (544 kilometers) having caressed the circumference of its tyres.
The 6,500 kilometers travelled since have presented countless hours of opportunity for observation, and contemplation. A recurring theme, I must confess, is that, whatever human product befalls my eye — whether it be motorcycles, motor cars, bicycles, lawnmowers, houses, household appliances, children’s toys, public buildings — the truth of the matter is this.
“They just don’t make them like they used to”.
Look around you. Consider carefully, the things our hands … or perhaps, ever-more commonly, a robot’s hands … have made.
Increasingly lacking solidity.
Not to mention … simplicity.
One cracked dab of glue, one failed diode away from redundancy. And relegation to landfill.
But what I have noticed most of all, is the growing absence of character. Real, authentic character.
For some time now, it has been my ever-firming belief that mankind’s inner condition is, more often than not, reflected in the work of his hands.
As within, so without.
Just as (to cite the topical example) the Harley-Davidson Motor Company’s products have steadily declined in simplicity, solidity, reliability, longevity, originality, authenticity, and above all, soul, and all this most notably since the turn of the millennium, so too, I perceive the steady degeneration of the West’s moral condition. Indeed, so much so, with the passing of years, that I can hardly … rarely … bring myself to look at a television. At the gym, I keep my motorcycle earplugs in, to block out the music videos’ arrogant, swaggering, tempting, beckoning, shimmying, serpentine, slithering, haughty, angry din.
What is on TV?
Violence. Narcissism. Depravity. Injury. Sophistry. Flattery. Revelry. Superficiality. Irresponsibility. Momentary. Temporary. Greedy.
Charging, raging, with pounding rhythms, competing, but strangely lacking, something.
Please do not from all this think that my weltanschauung is bleak. Au contraire, I see darts of light reflecting everywhere. Shining all the brighter, by reason of growing darkness.
All this, by way of preamble, may now help you to see why it is that René Guénon’s ‘Language of the Birds’ resonated with me —
Likewise it is said in the Hindu tradition that the Devas [angels], in their fight against the Asuras [demons], protect themselves (achhandayan) by the recitation of the hymns of the Veda, and that it is for this reason that the hymns received the name of chhandas, a word which denotes ‘rhythm‘. The same idea is contained in the word dhikr which, in Islamic esoterism, is used of rhythmic formulas that correspond exactly to Hindu mantras. The repetition of these formulas aims at producing a harmonisation of the different elements of the being, and at causing vibrations which, by their repercussions throughout the immense hierarchy of states, are capable of opening up a communication with the higher states, which in a general way is the essential and primordial purpose of all rites.
This brings us back directly and very nearly to what was said above about the ‘language of the birds’, which we can also call ‘angelic language’, and of which the image in the human world is rhythmic speech: for the ‘science of rhythm‘, which admits of many applications, is the ultimate basis of all the means that can be brought into action in order to enter into communication with the higher states. That is why an Islamic tradition says that Adam, in the earthly paradise, spoke in verse, that is, in rhythmic speech; this is related to that ‘Syrian language’ (lughah suryaniyyyah) of which we spoke in our previous study on the ‘science of letters’, and which must be regarded as translating directly the ‘solar and angelic illumination’ as this manifests itself in the centre of the human state. This is also why the Sacred Books are written in rhythmic language which, clearly, makes them something quite other than mere ‘poems’, in the purely profane sense, which the anti-traditional bias of the modern critics would have them to be. Moreover, in its origins poetry was by no means the vain ‘literature’ that it has become by a degeneration resulting from the downward march of the human cycle, and it had a truly sacred character.8 Traces of this can be found up to classical antiquity in the West, when poetry was still called the ‘language of the Gods’, an expression equivalent to those we have indicated, in as much as the Gods, that is, the Devas,9 are, like the angels, the representation of the higher states. In Latin, verses were called carmina, a designation relating to their use in the accomplishment of rites; for the word carmen is identical to the Sanskrit karma which must be taken here in its special sense of ‘ritual action’;10 and the poet himself, interpreter of the ‘sacred language’ through which the divine Word appears, was vates, a word which defined him as endowed with an inspiration that was in some way prophetic. Later, by another degeneration, the vates was no longer anything more than a common ‘diviner’,11 and the carmen (whence the English word ‘charm’) no more than a ‘spell’, that is, an operation of low magic. There again is an example of the fact that magic, even sorcery, is what subsists as the last vestige of vanished traditions.
These few indications should be enough to show how inept it is to mock at stories that speak of the ‘language of the birds’. It is all too easy and too simple to disdain as superstitious everything that one does not understand. But the ancients, for their part, knew very well what they meant when they used symbolic language. The real ‘superstition’, in the strictly etymological sense (quod superstat), is that which outlives itself, in short, the ‘dead letter’. But even this very survival, however lacking in interest it may seem, is nevertheless not so contemptible; for the Spirit, which ‘bloweth where it listeth’ and when it listeth, can always come and revivify symbols and rites, and restore to them, along with their lost meaning, the plenitude of their original virtue.
8 It can be said, moreover, in a general way, that the arts and sciences have become profane by just this kind of degeneration which deprives them of their traditional nature and, by way of consequence, of any higher significance. We have spoken of this in L’Esoterisme de Dante, ch. 2, and The Crisis of the Modern World, ch. 4 (see also The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, ch. 8)
9 The Sanskrit Deva and the Latin deus are one and the same word.
10 The word poetry also derives from the Latin poiein which has the same signification as the Sanskrit word kri, whence comes karma, which is found again in the Latin creare understood in its primitive acceptation; at the beginning, therefore, it was a question of something altogether different from a mere artistic or literary production in the profane sense that Aristotle seems to have had uniquely in view in speaking of what he called the ‘poetic sciences’.
11 The word ‘diviner’ itself is no less deviant from its meaning; for etymologically it is nothing else than divinus, signifying here ‘interpreter of the Gods’. The ‘auspices’ (from aves spicere, ‘to observe the birds’), omens drawn from the flight and song of birds, are most closely related to the ‘language of birds’, understood in this case in the most literal sense but nevertheless still identified with the ‘language of the Gods’, who were thought to manifest their will by means of these omens. The birds thus played the part of ‘messengers’, analogous — but on a very low plane — to the part that is generally attributed to the angels (whence their name, for this is precisely the meaning of the Greek aggelos).
And so it is with my personal experience, and more particularly, my deeper intuition, of what it is that truly lies beneath the extraordinary “legend” of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Heard, felt, only by those with “an ear to hear”.
A rhythm, a pulse, a vibration, resonating through the body, calming the spirit, vivifying the soul, opening a door to communication with “higher” states of being; a particular rhythm which can now only be found in the “old-fashioned”, “under-powered” vibrations of a simple engine design rendered “obsolete” by the “sophisticated” glories of modernity.
That is to say, by the simple greed of accountants, lawyers, bureaucrats, executives, and shareholders.
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
— Leonardo da Vinci
An extraordinary gathering of angels
In recent weeks, I have experienced two unusual — extra ordinary — close encounters with birds. In recent days, I have discovered that these may signify close encounters with angels.
The first and most profound of these occurred at my favourite place of solitude in the mountains. Borne witness here, with the title ‘Strange days indeed’.
The second occurred a couple of weeks ago. On this occasion, at my favourite lakeside haven. Shortly after my arriving and nestling down on the grass with Kindle and camera, a Butcherbird — they of the glorious mellow carrolling voice — suddenly swooped down and landed right at my still-booted feet. For a moment it looked directly at me, cocking its head quizzically. Then, even more extraordinary — and unprecedented — with a small leap and brief flit of wings, it alighted fearlessly right on top of my knee.
My left knee. The one ever prone to injury, in more youthful times.
The Butcherbird sat there happily for a few moments, looking at me. Only when I began to turn away, slowly to reach for my camera, did it swiftly fly away. I could not help but feel that this little bird had come to welcome me.
Or perhaps, to offer me a greater reason to stay. Because soon after, two vehicles rolled up the lonely dirt road, pulled over on the grass behind my motorcycle, and spilled their many occupants out. Whereupon these noisily began setting up chairs and tables for a BBQ. Such would usually signal me to politely beat a silent retreat, to some other, less trafficked locale. The hope of a return of the Butcherbird — after their departure — sufficed me to stay. And indeed, it — or rather, another of the same Family — did. Although as the photos here show, this other did not come at all so near, contenting itself to alight on my throttle hand grip instead.
These visitations of the birds were vividly recalled to my mind two days ago, in a hospital emergency department, by my twin brother’s bedside, on reading a chapter in Symbols of Sacred Science entitled ‘The Language of the Birds’. It also recalled to mind my first poem; the subject of yesterday’s blog ‘Learning to fly’.
The following excerpt from ‘The Language of the Birds’ is worthy of deep contemplation for its own sake. However, I wish to cite it here for an additional reason. It prepares the way for another post to follow — perhaps tomorrow — on a closely related topic that is near to my heart, and to many themes in connection with the Psalmistice blog, including the symbolisms embedded in its “winged” logo, and my intuitions regarding the extraordinary, other-worldly effects induced by the spell of the silence discerned beneath the beat of a single crankpin 45° V-twin Harley-Davidson engine.
That topic, is rhythm.
But first, on the ‘Language of the Birds’ —
Fat-tāliyāti dhikran …
By those ranged in ranks,
And who drive away, repulsing,
And who recite the invocation …
Qurʾān, XXXVII, 1-3
There is often mention, in diverse traditions, of a mysterious language called ‘the language of the birds’ — a designation that is clearly symbolic, for the very importance that is attributed to the knowledge of this language, as the prerogative of a high initiation, does not allow us to take it literally. We read, for example, in the Qurʾān: ‘And Solomon was David’s heir. And he said, O mankind! Lo! we have been taught the language of the birds (ullimnā manṭiq aṭ-ṭayr) and have been given abundance of all things …’. (XXVII, 16). Elsewhere we read of heroes who, having vanquished the dragon, like Siegfried in the Nordic legend, instantly understand the language of the birds; and this makes it easy to interpret the symbolism in question. Victory over the dragon has, as its immediate consequence, the conquest of immortality, which is represented by some object the approach to which is guarded by the dragon; and this conquest essentially implies the reintegration into the centre of the human state, that is, into the point where communication is established with the higher states of being. It is this communication which is represented by the understanding of the language of the birds; and in fact birds are frequently taken as symbols of the angels, that is, precisely, of the higher states. We have had occasion elsewhere1 to cite the Gospel parable that refers, in this very sense, to ‘the birds of the heavens’ which come and rest in the branches of the tree, the same tree that represents the axis which passes through the centre of each state of the being, and links all the states with each other.2
In the Qurʾānic text given above, the term aṣ-ṣāffāt is taken as meaning literally the birds, but as denoting symbolically the angels (al-malā’ikah); and thus the first verse signifies the constitution of the celestial or spiritual hierarchies.3 The second verse expresses the fight of the angels against the demons, the celestial powers against the infernal powers, that is, the opposition between higher and lower states.4 In the Hindu tradition this is the struggle of the Devas against the Asuras and also, according to a symbolism which comes very close to the symbolism of our theme, the combat of Garuda against the Nāga which is, moreover, none other than the above mentioned serpent or dragon. The Garuda is the eagle, and elsewhere it is replaced by other birds such as the ibis, the stork, the heron, all enemies and destroyers of reptiles.5
Finally, in the third verse, the angels are said to be reciting the dhikr which is generally interpreted as meaning here the Qur’ān; not the Qur’ān that is expressed in human language, needless to say, but its eternal prototype inscribed on the ‘Guarded Tablet’ (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ), which like Jacob’s ladder extends from the heavens to the earth, and therefore throughout all the degrees of universal existence.
1 Man and His Becoming according to the Vedānta, ch. 3.
2 In the Medieval symbol of the Peridexion (a corruption of the word Paradision), one sees the birds on the branches of the tree and the dragon at its foot (cf., The Symbolism of the Cross, ch. 9). In a study on the symbolism of the ‘bird of Paradise’ (Le Rayonnement intellectuel, May-June 1930) Charbonneau-Lassay has reproduced a sculpture in which this bird is represented by only a head and wings, a form frequently used to depict the angels (cf., Le Bestiaire du Christ, ch. 46, p. 425)
3 The word ṣaff or ‘rank’, is one of those many words which have been suggested as the origin of the word ṣūfī and taṣawwuf; and although this derivation does not seem acceptable from a purely linguistic point of view, it is none the less true, as with many other derivations of the same kind, that it represents one of those ideas really contained in these terms; for the ‘spiritual hierarchies’ are essentially identical with the degrees of initiation.
4 This opposition is expressed in each being by the two tendencies, ascending and descending, called respectively sattwa and tamas by the Hindu doctrine. It is also that which Mazdeism symbolises by the antagonism between light and darkness, personified respectively by Ormuzd and Ahriman.
5 See on this subject the remarkable works of Louis Charbonneau-Lassay on the animal symbols of Christ (cf., Le Bestiaire du Christ). It is important to note that the symbolic opposition of bird and serpent does not apply except when the serpent is considered under its malefic aspect; on the contrary, under its benefic aspect it sometimes is united with the bird as in the case of Quetzalcohuatl of the ancient Meso-American traditions. Moreover, one also finds in Mexico the combat of the eagle with the serpent. As regards the association of bird and serpent, we can recall the Gospel text: ‘Be ye wise as serpents and guileless as doves’ (Mt. 10:16).