Monday, 30 September 2019

The Underworld and Fiver - the 'shaman' rabbit in Watership Down (perspectives derived from Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield)

[Fiver:] Well, there’s another place - another country - isn’t there. We go there when we sleep: at other times too; and when we die. 

El-ahrairah [the rabbits' god] comes and goes between the two as he wants, I suppose, but I never could quite make that out, from the tales. 

Some rabbits will tell you it’s all easy there, compared with the waking dangers that they under- stand. But I think that only shows they don’t know much about it. It’s a wild place, and very unsafe. 

And where are we really - there or here?

[Hazel:] Our bodies stay here - that’s good enough for me.

I am re-reading Richard Adams's novel of genius, Watership Down, for something like the fifth time in the past decade; and it strikes me as even-better with each re-reading.

One of my favourite characters has always been the seer or 'shaman' rabbit, Fiver; whose trance states and clairvoyant visions guide the chief rabbit Hazel in the big decisions that need to be made.

(The fact that Fiver is meant to be a shaman is confirmed by the heading of chapter 26 which is a relevant quote from Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. Adams was significantly influenced by Campbell's work on anthropology and mythology, and the two men later became acquaintances - Adams speaking ("the proudest moment of my life") at a celebration of Campbell's 80th birthday that is recorded in The Hero's Journey book and video.)

In the above passage Fiver describes the source of his visions; which is the 'underworld' or what Ancient Egyptians termed the 'dwat' - and which was redescribed in would-be scientific terms by Jung as the Collective Unconscious. The world of gods, the spirit aspect of sleeping mortals, spirits of the dead, and perhaps other beings such as angels and demons.

Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield had many interesting things to say about the changing, developing relationship between our conscious and waking minds in our mortal, incarnated (embodied) lives; and this underworld.

The first stage is when men (or rabbits, perhaps) were pure spirits, not incarnated. In this state there is no distinction between the Waking-world and the Underworld.

The second stage is after incarnation, when there is a distinction between the Waking-world inhabited by bodies, and the Underworld which can only be visited by the spirit part of Men (and rabbits) - while 'Our bodies stay here' - i.e. in the Waking-world - as Hazel says.

At this second stage there are 'specialists' in crossing to the Underworld, those who modern people term generically shamans - like Fiver. To do this, the spirit must be separated from the body, in a trance, sleep or some other 'altered state of consciousness'. But this crossing generally needs to be done by an act of choice, and perhaps by means of a learned skill; and is a hazardous business.

There is a personal price to pay for most shamans - in terms of such as illness, disability. alienation, social hostility and so forth. Fiver, for example, was a 'runt', smaller and weaker than average male rabbits and of a more nervous disposition.

The first stage seems to be normal when Men lived before agriculture and settled dwellings; as nomadic gatherers and hunters. When men had access to stores of food, they settled and developed specialised occupational hierarchies.

Direct contract with the gods incrementally faded, and a 'professional' priesthood (in charge of myth, ritual, sacred objects, scriptures etc.) displaced shamans.

As the second stage continued in Man's history of consciousness, it became harder and harder to cross this boundary, until (in the past few hundred years) more and more people become unable to cross the boundary, and attain the experiences of the Underworld which are the basis of knowledge of the gods, the dead and other such matters.

Religion became less spirit-experiential until it became almost wholly material-procedural. 

Thus we reach third stage, which is materialism - the assertion that there is no spirit, not Underworld, no gods, and no dead.The fact that extreme changes in consciousness are required to have even a chance of shamanic experiences; means that the content of such experiences are hard to recall accurately; and allows experiences of gods, the dead, clairvoyance etc. to be relegated to the realms of pathology - delusion, hallucination, delirium and the like.

The fourth stage if what Barfield terms Final Participation - it is when experience and knowledge of the Underworld comes directly into the Waking-world - during normal consciousness. So, knowledge of the gods, the dead, angels and demons, and so forth are woven-into the stream of conscious, awake-thinking.

An analogy with the shamanic era is that this integration of the Waking- and Underworld is an act of choice. The Underworld must be believed, regarded as significant, attended to and taken seriously - all of which stands in stark opposition to the materialism of the third stage era.

When the fourth stage happens during mortal life it is a temporary foretaste and learning experience of post-mortal resurrected, Heavenly life; when this becomes the usual nature of consciousness. But our mortal experience of the fourth stage is probably mainly intended to give us a Heavenly understanding of our mortal situation - so that we can learn the significance of our own lives, and the main phenomena in the world around us.


S.K. Orr said...

Very enjoyable, Bruce. "Watership Down" is one of the most important books in my life. And it's been interesting through the years when I've asked others if they've ever read it...the most common response is "Watership Down? I thought that was a children's book..."

a_probst said...

I would like to think of heaven and post-mortal resurrected life as an Over World.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SK - I read it in my mid teens and didn't much like it - perhaps because I did not like the rabbit religion. I then re-read it on the cusp of becoming a Christian and loved it for the same reason! (Although Adams was not a Christian.)

@ap - I think your nomenclature is probably better than the above post - with mortal waking life termed something like the 'Middleworld' - like Middle Earth... although that was meant as middle between Heaven and Hell. (I don't think Hell is really a 'world' since many of its dwellers are probably solitary, self isolated).

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I just read "Watership Down" a few years ago on Bruce's recommendation and agree it is a work of genius. I had heard of it before, of course, but had always misunderstood the title, thinking it was syntactically analogous to "Black Hawk Down" and wondering what a sunken "watership" could possibly have to do with rabbits! (British readers, being more familiar with "down" as a place-name component, would presumably be more likely to parse it correctly.) My mental image was of the enormous hull of a sailing ship lying in a grassy meadow, with rabbits hopping around it, and I vaguely imagined that the story was driven by the sudden appearance of the ship and its effect on the rabbits' lives.