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"Awen yn codi o'r cudd ac yn cydio'r cwbl"
- Waldo Williams
(Awen arising from hiding and everything binding)

Ancient YEW & Ivy Grove

Ivy covers dark, covers deep
roots of yew, running through
the mound, tump, tumulus, sidh,
gorsedd of three-boled tree
writhen beneath the written
epitaphs on grave stones, knitted
like mycelium, like leaf mould
in dark layers underground,
laid down like the dead
who have left the world
absent from the presence
we grasp here daily, present
in the forgotten not-world
they inhabit, presences
we conjure, cannot touch
not because under but beyond
the presence of I, somewhere
in the absence of not-I.

Above ground the tree
reaches for the sky,
brings not-world into world
in a spray of green needles
which do not fall
and sticky red arils
which do, year on year
here and not-here
not-yew then yew
eternally rooted
in ancestral presence.

The Meaning of Life

There has been much philosophical debate about ‘The Meaning of Life’, a phrase which analytic philosophy tends to regard as meaningless, or at least not worth considering. But there also seems to be some confusion between the idea that ‘Life’ has a meaning and what it is to lead a meaningful life. The former seems to refer to life in general (‘why are we here?’, ‘why do living things exist’, do they have a purpose’) that is, to refer to Life as an object rather than asking what it is for an individual subject to feel that life is meaningful. Seen in that way, the transition between asking a question about an external fact and asking a question about personal experience seems absolute. They are surely different types of question. But once we pluralise the sense of the subjective experience of meaning in our lives and extrapolate from our own experience to the apparent, and asserted, experiences of others, the two fields of factual identification and personal perception begin to overlap like the areas of convergence of circles in a Venn diagram. If life is only meaningful to me because this or that project which I am engaged in makes it so, that says nothing about ‘The Meaning of Life’ in general terms, even if the projects concerned can themselves be shown to have significance beyond the fact of my interest in them. But if these projects are shared with others, and those others also can be observed to be engaged in meaningful activity in engaging with them, and if we can collectively assert this sense of meaningful activity, then the sense of ‘meaningful’ is not limited to subjective experience but can be seen to apply to collective experience. This, it might be argued, does not extend the sense of ‘meaningful’ to Life in general, but merely expands the subjective domain into the cultural sphere: a collective subject does not become an object.

From where, then, does the shared sense of meaning as something beyond us arise? Can it encompass Life beyond particular projects which may be seen as part of human cultural activity? If a person is interested in horse-riding to the extent that it shapes important parts of that person’s life-activity, and if this is shared with others in a horse-riding club, and other related activities, and so gives meaning to the lives of those people, could it also be said to be meaningful for the horses? The answer to such a question in this context doesn’t depend upon being able to know what is meaningful for a horse, but upon being able to extend the human sense of ‘meaningful’ to life in general. Nor does it depend upon particular meanings being transmissible across human cultures and beyond them to other life forms. But it does depend upon being able to talk meaningfully about the way all life interacts to give significance to the things we do and the experiences we gain from doing them. The sense of an individual having a soul, which is the mirror of meaning, and of human cultures having souls mirrored in cultural customs and artefacts, is the same sense in which meaning is inherent in life for the human species. The commonality of story themes across different cultures which take on specific cultural forms while retaining an archetypal integrity, suggests the universality of meaningful discourse at a deep structural level for human beings. That many of these stories contain animals who interact with humans, and often involve other than human persons, also extends meaningfulness in ways that do not limit it to one species.

So we can say that the ‘meaning’ of Life is contained in meaningful activity that potentially includes all life-forms which together express the collective soul out of which individual souls are composed. Meaning, then, inheres in cultural values, not only in the sense of ‘high’ cultural artefacts of human society, but in the activities of all living things as they go about their everyday enactments of ways of being. What Wittgenstein called the ‘release into life’ is what makes it meaningful, and defines the meaning of life and naturalises it so the quotes around the word are no longer necessary. Meaning emerges from the subject-object relationship at every level and so where the gods are reflected in our practices that acknowledge them -consciously or not - and this is why they are both subject and object for us, both with us in our world and beyond us in a world of their own, in the interplay between Thisness and Otherness where meaning is generated.

Gilgamesh and Shiduri

Gilgamesh and Shiduri

Clay Tablet from the Standard Babylonian Epic of Gilgameš. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraq. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)
, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Gilgamesh raced the Sun |
 Under the mountains
 To the edge of the world
To the Encircling Ocean.
Shiduri with her vats of ale |
And golden cups
Paused her brewing |
Watched him, saying,
'Who is this coming
Where no-one dares to tread?'
She barred the door
Would not let him in.
'It is he, the bull hunter,
Who spurned Ishtar.
When she called down Taurus
From above to avenge her
He butchered the bull.

As he slew Humbaba
Guardian of the Cedars
Of the Sacred Mountain
When Gilgamesh went there
With the wild man Enkidu.
He comes with ravaged looks
And sunken cheeks'.
She went to the roof of her tavern
Spoke to him from there:
'Why do you venture
Beyond the world's end?
There is nothing here
For a man like you
King and Hero though you are.

He could not linger,
Drink from her golden cups,
Imbibe her wisdom,
Only asked the way
To Uta-napishti the immortal
Over the Waters of Death.
'Go back to your home,
To your mortal life'
Was her wise counsel.
He would not listen
So she sent him
Along his way
To the Encircling Ocean.

The story of Gilamesh is written in cuneiform scripts on a series of broken clay tablets found at various times scattered across what is now Turkey, Iraq and Syria and in different versions of Old Babylonian, Later Babylonian and Akkadian, some of which were inscribed over a thousand years apart going back to 2000bce. Gilgamesh was a king behaving badly who sought immortaility both in deeds and in fact. The episode with Shiduri is less well-known than others in the narrative. Who was she, and why does she brew ale in a place where there is apparently no-one to drink it? She is described as a goddess of wisdom swathed in hoods and veils. She was certainly wise in barring her door to Gilgamesh given his tendency to kill everyone who gets in his way, even those who might help him. Had she allowed him in to drink her ale she may have offered him immortality of a kind. Such goddesses offer the ale of sovereignty only to those rulers who come to them with the right credentials. That is presumably why her tavern is beyond the reach of ordinary customers. But, although Gilgamesh is a king, he has abandoned his responsibilities. After the death of his companion Enkidu he seeks immortality for himself in the search for Uta-napishti, the survivor of the Deluge (a parallel to the Biblical flood) who dwells eternally with his wife in an otherworld place apart from the humans who were re-created as mortals by the gods after the Deluge. Shiduri tells him to go back to his proper life, face up to his responisbilities and enjoy it while he can. When he eventually crosses the Waters of Death to Uta-napishti he receives the same advice (attributed differently in different versions of the story). So he returns to Uruk to live out his life. Some associated Sumerian poetry records that following his death he is assigned a role in the Netherworld as king of the shades, passing judgement on the dead, because his mother was a goddess. Like other heroes of the ancient world his partial divinity does not guarantee him immortaility, though his role in the Netherworld brings him as close to it as it is possible for him to get. Although there are different emphases in different versions, the themes of the stories encompass the advice to be content to lead a good life and the importance of commemorating the dead for this brings them relief in the Netherworld and ensures their immortality among the living.

There are many brief fragments of these stories found on broken clay tablets which offer alternative readings as well as many shaped by modern translators, adaptors and poets since the tablets began to be discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. My own brief fragment is shaped from the reconstructions and translations by Andrew George The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics, 1999).


Sovereignty, in ancient times, was envisaged as a natural validation of the exercise of power, so a ruler had to ‘marry’ the land over which he ruled, manifesting as a goddess giving divine sanction to the ruler’s status and authority. One ritual formulation of this was the offering of a cup of ale or mead by the Sovereignty Goddess and the validation of this in a prophecy of successful leadership. Claiming such power was, of course, a political act, and may have been maintained by acts of brutal aggression. But it contained the sense that, however absolute power was in the human sphere, it had to be accountable to divine authority. In urban centres of the ancient world, such as Athens and Rome, the idea of accountability to at least some of the citizens began to evolve, so that power was regulated by consent in theory, even where in practice it was absolute. Divine favour was also invoked in various ways and protective deities favoured the proper exercise of statecraft. Through much of the Middle Ages in Europe kings ruled as representatives of God on Earth, though the separation of temporal and spiritual sovereignty was embodied in the institutions of the Church and papal authority over temporal sovereigns. 

With the rise of Protestantism and the notion of individual accountability to divine power also came a growing sense of sovereignty by consent of the people and the questioning of absolute power. This took various forms illustrated by the different ways the idea of a ‘social contract’ was taken forward. On what would today be called the ‘right wing’ were the ideas of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who held that the validation of sovereignty was the consent of the people, but that power emanating from that sovereignty needed to be executed absolutely to avoid chaos. Hobbes, therefore, though a supporter of Charles I and Charles II, could also agree that during the period of the Protectorate, Oliver Cromwell should exercise absolute power rather than submit to the will of Parliament which should only seek to advise rather than instruct him. On the ‘left wing’ of  the Social Contract idea, the French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau held that democratic accountability was essential if power was to be exercised responsibly. Here sovereignty resides in the will of the majority and power is exercised by governments carrying out that will. But individual will, or the will of a minorities, is subjugated to that of the majority. 

The idea of representative government, taking account of the wishes of the people but also attempting to achieve a balance between the interests of the various bodies which comprise ‘the people’ could be seen as growing out of a compromise between these different views of the source of sovereignty and the exercise of power. Indeed it could be said that the ideal of a modern democracy is that it takes as much care of minorities as it does of the majority.  But it is also clear that modern states are comprised of elites as well as other groups who benefit differentially from the ‘common wealth’. It is also the case that sovereignty is further bifurcated in most modern states between the legislature and the judiciary. In a modern constitutional monarchy like Britain sovereignty resides in theory with the Monarch but in practice with Parliament, while the exercise of power resides with the Government, its devolved institutions and the civil service who administer it. The courts are conceived of as independent of Government and are supposed to interpret the laws passed by Parliament independently of political bias or interest. That’s the theory. But in the complex world we inhabit it is arguable that sovereignty cannot be separated from the exercise of power by  economic institutions ranging from central banks to international financial institutions as well as that power over our lives which global corporations exercise through the supply of goods and services and the effect of their operations on the environment and on our personal lives. 

To further complicate the issue, the need to regulate organisations that operate across many nation states, and the need also to restrict the power of particular nation states over their citizens and over other states, has led to concepts of shared sovereignty mediated by international agreements, supra-national courts and economic unions such as the European Community. Many of the arguments for and against  ‘Brexit’ were put at the level of pragmatic politics in terms of economic benefits of leaving or remaining. Others operating at the more populist level appealed to ingrained  prejudices, fears about the effects of unlimited immigration and a nostalgic sense of lost empire. But the hard-line theorists of Brexit were motivated by a concept of sovereignty that was opposed to any sense that it could be shared, or that Britain could be subject to the sovereign authority of the European Court or that European civil servants should exercise sovereign power over British citizens. 

But there is a confusion here between the concept of sovereignty and the exercise of power. The first is something validated by an understanding of the source of authority for the wielding of power. The second may or may not not have any basis in moral or civil authority. That is, it is possible to wield power without sovereign authority. So the argument returns to one about the source of sovereign power as a regulator of how that power is wielded. If sources of sovereignty are human constructs as understood by most democratic states, then sovereignty can be constructed and shared in any way that is convenient. If, however, there is is natural source of sovereignty, it is less clear how this would validate the power exercised by governments in complex modern societies, and what would be the basis for the exercise of sovereign power by institutions that operate outside the political sphere. So it seems there can be no basis for authorising the wielding of power beyond the brute fact of power itself. Should we wish to challenge that, it only seems possible to do so by appealing to a source of sovereignty that is beyond human contingency. If the earlier developments away from concepts of sovereignty grounded in religious authority can be seen as bringing sovereignty into the democratic sphere of human control, it may be that the inverse of this is now the case as absolute power has shifted away from ‘sovereign’ nation states who can regulate, but not completely control the activities of internationalised capitalism. Indeed it is arguable that absolute control of the mechanisms of global financial markets lies beyond even the elites who are, nevertheless, able to manipulate them for the benefit of themselves and their corporations. Power structures can then be seen as operating as self-sufficient mechanisms eluding the total control of individuals or democratic institutions.

Historically it may be too late to attempt to return Sovereignty to its divine origins, or even to a sphere of defined moral authority. We live in a multi-cultural world, and even where particular religious or ethical cultures predominate, internationalised structures of power transcend these. To hold on to an idea of sovereign authority grounded in Nature, recognising that the exercise of power may now take place without the intentional agency of individual human beings, and be delivered by automated systems which are increasingly self-justifying(✳︎), Sovereignty itself needs to be brought into play as part of this operational biosphere. Not as an abstract concept justifying the power wielded by nation states, but as a natural system of ethical regulation underlying and interacting with the complexities of the webs of power woven through modern human societies. After all, the cup of Sovereignty that was offered to those early tribal leaders, and the prophecies of success that were uttered by their inspired bards, were themselves expressions of a compact between human society and the natural order that sustains it.

✳︎Interestingly, in this respect, James Lovelock, who long ago developed the theory of Gaia as a self-regulating system, has recently published a book — Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence — arguing that we are not, as some think, now living in the ‘Athropocene’, but rather we should think of ourselves a living in the ‘Novacene’, an era  of cyborg consciousness which will, he optimistically predicts, itself regulate the worse excesses of the activities of the humans who created it.