Dr. Sharon Blackie is an international teacher and renowned writer whose work weaves together psychology, mythology, and ecology to reveal how our cultural myths have led us to the individual and collective social and environmental problems we face today and how reconnection with our more ancient mythology would better serve our relationship with the Earth, our souls, and the cosmos. With a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience from the University of London, as well as master’s degrees in creative writing and Celtic studies, she is the author of the novel, The Long Delirious Burning Blue, the nonfiction, If Women Rose Rooted, and The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, and of 46 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The central premise of her work is that the old myths, stories, and philosophies of the West show us the way back to a world in which everything is not only alive, but has purpose and intentionality of its own. She teaches and leads retreats in Europe and North America. (https://sharonblackie.net/work-with-me/). She lives in Connemara, Ireland, where she founded The Hedge School, which is devoted to this work, and from where she was kind enough to speak with me by video conference.—Leslee Goodman
The MOON: The theme of this issue of The Moon, and of your work, is that our stories can connect or disconnect a culture from its soul. What is the current story our culture tells, and what is wrong with it?
Blackie: There are a number of different stories our culture tells itself—a number of myths we live by that tell us how we should be in the world, how to act, what things are important, what our values should be. And for the past millennium, at least—especially for the past 200-300 years—those myths have very much been about progress, about more. That every generation has to be better in some way than the last, has to have more money, has to have a better standard of living, has to have more stuff. Other myths, in the West anyway, are very heroic. We have this concept of the hero, the Hero’s Journey, which is very individualistic, and is all about our own personal progress and individuation. These myths that our culture tells us have led us, effectively, to the mess we’re in today, which I describe as “the Wasteland.” The Wasteland is a defiled and polluted environment, which describes both our external and internal grounds of being. We’ve lost our connection to soul and to place. We’ve been “displaced.”
The MOON: I just finished reading your book, If Women Rose Rooted. What would it mean if women rose rooted?
Blackie: That’s the big question, isn’t it? The title actually comes from a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: “If we surrendered to Earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees. Instead we entangle ourselves in knots of our own making and struggle, lonely and confused.” I took that idea and applied it to women, because in pre-Christian mythology throughout much of Europe, women are central. They are esteemed and respected; they are the keepers of the balance and sanctity of the Earth. But that ancient understanding of women’s importance here in the West hasn’t carried through to the modern day, so a lot of people are unaware of it.
The premise of the book is that if we were really attuned to the land in the ways that we used to be, if we lived according to our old native stories and belief systems, then we would not stand by while the Earth was being destroyed.
It was clear to me, looking back at the indigenous mythologies of Europe, and particularly my own traditions in the so-called “Celtic” countries of Ireland and Scotland, that our ancestors lived in a way that was very deeply connected with the natural world—just in the way that we think of other indigenous peoples now. Our old stories show us that that is our inheritance. So I wrote the book, really, to try to help people understand those old stories and reclaim that way of being in the world. We don’t have to look to other cultures for wisdom about how to live in balance and harmony with nature. Our own connection is right here under our feet, in our own stories, which spring directly out of this land. But we haven’t been taught to see those stories in that way. They’re dismissed as fairy tales for kids, if they’re told at all. My book is very much about trying to help people understand and reclaim our inheritance.
The MOON: In the December issue, The MOON published an essay by Native American activist and author Lyla June whose ancestry is Diné and European. Her essay is about reconnecting with her European roots, and it hit a powerfully resonant chord with readers, jumping to the second most-read post on The MOON in just a week.
Blackie: Yes. Displaced Westerners are very hungry for that sense of connection. So at the heart of my work is precisely that desire to reconnect people with our ancient traditions here in the West—which significantly pre-date the Christian tradition that came to us later, from the Middle East. Those pre-Christian mythologies and philosophies—whether we’re talking about the magical stories of Celtic Ireland, or the beautiful poetic sagas of Finland, or the soul-centered mythtellings of Plato in ancient Greece—are rich and complex and beautiful. They offer up a world in which everything is not only alive, but has a purpose of its own. Where each incarnated soul chooses to come, for a reason—to fulfill its own unique calling or soul purpose, and to offer up its own unique gift. That’s all very clear in the old traditions, and we badly need to reclaim that rich, meaningful worldview, which is our inheritance, our lineage.
I think one of the problems that we face, though—and to me it’s a very important point, having gone to the trouble to study the original sources—old texts, archaeological evidence, and folklore from the Celtic countries where my lineage is, as well as the wider Western mystery traditions—is that if you’re going to talk about all of this from an authentic, rooted place, you need to put in the work. There is so much nonsense written about these old worldviews from people who haven’t actually studied them properly. I don’t mean that for contemporary practice we need to straight-jacket ourselves in the past, but it helps to understand the lineage that we’re building from. And then, of course, we have to work with the stories so they make sense in a contemporary world, which is not the same world our ancestors inhabited 2,000 years ago.
One of the concepts I suppose I’m always barking about is the concept of apprenticeship. Many of the old fairy tales have this idea of apprenticeship: a young girl has to apprentice herself to a blacksmith for seven years before he will make her the studded shoes that will enable her to scale a glass mountain to recover her lost husband, for example. You always need to have an apprenticeship before you can truly be transformed; but few people want to do that anymore—to put in the time to learn; to work at it; to understand deeply, rather than just superficially. I think that’s also a problematic story told by our culture: we believe we have to have it all, and to have it right now. But we don’t have to live by that story.
The MOON: So much of the work that you’re recommending is reconnection to place, yet most of us now live in places that are covered in asphalt, where wildlife habitat is destroyed, and even trees and streams are rarities. Moreover, we couldn’t all return to our indigenous homelands without destroying them. So what can we do?
Blackie: That’s a big question with a lot of threads to it. From a personal perspective, I find it very difficult to connect to nature in a city. The concrete just smothers it for me. Nevertheless, there is wildlife in cities; there are plants and animals—crows and pigeons, mice and rats, squirrels and raccoons, and much more. And it is possible for people who live in cities to connect quite deeply. In my second nonfiction book, The Enchanted Life, I give an example I read in Wisdom of the Mythtellers, by University of Toronto professor Sean Kane. Kane tells of an Australian architect walking around Sydney with an Aboriginal elder, who tells him (and I’m paraphrasing), “You look at these skyscrapers, and you just see concrete, which you consider soulless and manmade. But an Aboriginal person looks at that concrete and says that even concrete has its own dreaming: a dream of becoming.” He’s saying that there is a spirit, an intentionality, that suffuses everything, even a slab of concrete. I remember reading that and thinking, “Wow. If people could see cities in that way, if they actually could look at the buildings that shelter them as beings they could relate to and come to understand, then a city could become a good place to live.” So I think that there are various different ways of doing it. There’s more than one way in.
The MOON: That’s interesting because, although I live in rural Washington where I feel deeply connected to nature, I just got back from four days in New York City, where I was stunned by how in love I felt with all the diverse people who surrounded me. I didn’t feel connected to nature, per se, but my husband said, “Well, you were connected to nature in a way. You were connected to human nature.”
Later, it occurred to me that all these people from all different places actually do carry with them a cellular knowledge from the place that their ancestors lived, even if they’re unaware of it. Maybe we’re reweaving the energy matrix somehow by this diaspora we’ve all participated in.
Blackie: Right. It’s also kind of like the energy expressed in Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious.
The MOON: Please tell us about why you took flying lessons and how it changed you.
Blackie: Oh, gosh. That was complicated! Let me see if I can summarize.
I had moved to America to take a corporate job, which I knew was following the wrong path, but I needed to leave Ireland because of a slightly mad ex-husband. I’d left him the house and just fled, and I needed a job. I took the easy way out, I suppose. In retrospect, that corporate job did many good things for me, curiously—giving me a lot of skills I wouldn’t otherwise have. So nothing is ever lost. But anyway, I found myself in Kentucky. I loved the people and many things about the place, but I didn’t feel connected there—not really. I knew that I was in the wrong job, my feet were in the wrong place, but I didn’t then feel I could go back home. I was having an enormous mid-life crisis. I realized that all of my life I’d felt a little bit fearful—fearful of making big changes, fearful of doing the wrong thing, fearful of death. I’d grown up in an environment that wasn’t very safe or secure. So I remember waking up one morning a few days after John F. Kennedy, Jr., had crashed his plane and died in Martha’s Vineyard. I remember thinking, “That would just be so petrifying,” and then waking up again two days later thinking, “I really need to learn to fly [laughter].” It was the scariest thing I could think of and yet, I had a sense that if I could do that, I could do anything. That it would liberate me from this paralyzing fear that I felt surrounded me. It would be the crucible in which I could finally transform myself.
To cut a long story short, I did learn to fly. And it was absolutely petrifying, but it was also very, very wonderful. It’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever done. And being in the sky made me viscerally aware of how important the Earth is to us. Not just in the sense that “I need to get back down to it,” but also this great sense of how the Earth holds us. How we need to be grounded in it, in order to truly fly.
The MOON: It’s said that we live in a very death-denying and death-defying culture, but you seemed to have come to terms with death as a result of your flying experience. Can you talk to us a bit about that?
Blackie: Absolutely. I don’t know that it’s necessarily anything much more complicated than that. I was a rather insecure and nervous child. My father was violent and my mother was a binge-drinker. We were very poor. So I never really felt secure. Wherever I looked, the world seemed like a scary place. I also felt fearful physically. I think wearing glasses as a child also had a lot to do with it. I was always told that I mustn’t fall and break my glasses because, I don’t know, the world would end or something! So I was physically very timid, and that all became tied up with the fear of death.
In my late 30s, I realized that if I didn’t face up to this, nothing would ever change. I’d go through my whole life a bit of a frightened, shadowy person. Although I was confident in lots of ways, I never felt fully, physically alive—because this underground fear of injury and death was stalking me.
So I took flying lessons. Which meant that literally every time I got in the plane, whether it was realistic or not, I felt as if I was facing death in a very real way. As a student pilot, I clearly had many opportunities to kill myself. Pilot error. Mechanical failure. Whatever. And I’d certainly never believed I would have the courage to fly solo. That was never going to happen! And yet, I did. That day was a huge turning point in my life. I literally felt as if I had taken my life into my own hands and whatever the outcome, it was okay. Even if I died, it was worth it, because the alternative was crap. The alternative was living a half-life.
So by facing death every time I got in that plane, I learned to fully live, which we can only do when we come face-to-face with our own mortality. I do think we live in a death-denying culture. We’re taught that our survival—our personal survival—is the only thing that matters, even if many, many bad things happen to the planet in order for us to live. This is also damaging to us as individual souls, I believe, because it literally stunts our growth. You can’t fully live if you’re constantly trying to protect yourself from dying. We fetishize individual survival, despite the fact that everyone must die in the end. So we don’t know how to die well, and we don’t know how to live well, with Death—in a real, personified, archetypal way—as a constant companion on our path.
The MOON: How are the Arthurian legends and the quest for the Holy Grail a diagnosis of our civilizational malaise?
Blackie: The Grail mythology is one of my academic specialties from Celtic studies. So I’ve read the stories—from the very oldest precursors of the current versions, all the way through the French and German medieval romances, to the way the story is transmitted in contemporary popular culture. And the Grail mythology is very often misunderstood. There are two threads that feed into it. One comes from an ancient Celtic route, via Ireland and Wales—a tradition full of stories of magical cauldrons and life-giving chalices. And the other thread comes from a Christian route, which is the notion that Joseph of Arimathea took the chalice that was used by Jesus at the Last Supper and brought it to Europe—and so that’s what the Holy Grail is: a Christian path to Christ, or God. In modern culture, the two threads have become conflated so that the ancient Grail story has become Christianized, but it’s actually much older than Christianity.
Part of the Celtic thread is Irish, and involves Otherworldly women, particularly a series of mostly place-based, tribal goddesses who are associated with an idea called Sovereignty. This isn’t about personal power; it’s about holding the Sovereignty of the land and the people, and all the responsibilities that entails. Sovereignty was the power to bestow the right to rule on a king who was going to care for and live in harmony with the land. It’s more than just the physical land; I see these Sovereignty figures as local representations, or personifications, of the soul of the world—the ancient Western tradition of the anima mundi—which was always represented as female, from Plato onwards. And so I see the role of kingship as a sort of stewardship of the anima mundi as it manifests itself in a particular corner of this Earth,
Sovereignty had many different faces, but she was almost always depicted carrying a cup, or some kind of Grail-like vessel, which she would offer to her chosen king or hero. By offering him a drink from this vessel, she would give him the power to rule. And by drinking from the cup, the king would accept his responsibilities to the land and the people, which resulted in a symbolic sacred marriage between the king and the land. These ceremonies continued right up into the 15th and 16th centuries in Ireland. So there is a lot of evidence that, actually, the Grail legends and later romances arose from this tradition. And in most of the Grail romances, women are the Grail-bearers or Grail-keepers. In contemporary culture, the focus is on these heroic knights who go off in search of the Holy Grail, but the person who holds the Grail is a woman. The Grail messengers—characters who emerge from the woods to tell the knights where they’re going wrong and set them back on track—are women. Kundry, for example, a wonderful, fierce, hag-like character in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s German telling, appears and scolds the knight Parsifal for doing a pretty bad job at pretty much everything, and for caring about all of the wrong things. Which causes him to do much better, and ultimately to attain the Grail.
So I believe that the Grail actually represents an ancient symbol of Otherworldly power, which is the power of the Earth itself, of the anima mundi, and this power is kept by women. To me, that is why the Grail mythology matters. It’s a symbol of what our ultimate purpose is in this life, a sense of which has now been lost. In losing the Grail, I believe, we lost our connection to the land and to the Otherworld, to the anima mundi itself, which was mediated by these divine women.
The MOON: We’ve been telling the Grail stories for hundreds of years, and we’re no closer to reclaiming our connection to the land. So how do we need to change the telling so we understand its message?
Blackie: I don’t think we need to change the telling, necessarily. I think we need to go back and explore what the stories mean a little more deeply than we tend to do now. Again, you need to do the work, the apprenticeship. You need to trace the stories from their actual roots and see them in their original context before you can understand them. And if you do that, you’ll see they are telling us how to live in balance and harmony with the land and with the soul of the world.
“The Rape of the Well Maidens” story, for example, which I tell at the beginning of If Women Rose Rooted, is a very clear example of what happens when we don’t respect the land and the wisdom of the Otherworld, which are intertwined. When the king raped the maidens who guarded the sanctity of the wells, there were consequences: the land became a Wasteland. You can see a clear parallel today. The land—and the sacred feminine tied to the land—has been raped. And that rape has consequences. We don’t need to change anything about the telling. We just have to take the story to heart. There’s a Wasteland, not just in the environment around us, but in our own souls, as well, because there is this very strong sense of alienation, of not belonging to anywhere, or anything. An immersion in these old stories can help reconnect us to the ancient wisdom of our own ancestral lineage, no matter where we live now. Knowing this can ground us and empower us to say, “We are women; we are the ones who rightfully hold the cup of Sovereignty. We are the ones who form the bridge between the Otherworld and this world: the bridge into the anima mundi. Let’s reclaim that power. Let’s serve the Earth in whatever ways we can.” Everyone will have their own way of contributing to this effort; everyone has their own unique gift. There’s no “one way” of being in service to the Earth. The important point is not to be just in service to ourselves, which is what the current culture’s prevailing mythology would have us do.
The MOON: In your own personal relationship with your partner, a man, you acknowledge suppressing everything in yourself that he might find offensive, which included most of the traits associated with the feminine: intuition, soul, emotion, essentially anything not based in linear rationality. I find that that’s very common among women. But isn’t it precisely our connection to the divine feminine that men most need and want from us?
Blackie: It depends very much on the men that you partner with, of course. Although I came to science after an all-arts education at school, I do have a very rigorous scientific training, which enhanced the natural skeptic in me. Yet through the years, I always held on to that imaginal world, the world of fairy tales, imagination, and creativity. I was a closet Jungian trained as a behavioral and cognitive psychologist, but that Jungian, mythical approach—the world of depth psychology—has always been very important to me. Critical, really. As I got older, particularly when I came back to Scotland from America, having gone through that whole flying experience, I returned to cultivating that relationship I’d always had with the imaginal world—the anima mundi.
Then I met a man who did not believe in any of that “fuzzy stuff,” who had been an Oxford philosophy student and an RAF fast-jet pilot. He loved nature, but he just wasn’t having “any of that nonsense.” And because I loved him very dearly, I did what a lot of women do in such situations. I stuck my tarot cards and fairy tales and Jungian psychology books in a drawer, and I pretended I didn’t have them. I accepted that I was never going to be able to talk about those things with him. He was a very lovely man, but he would just not be able to accept those perspectives without trying to deconstruct them, or making fun of them. I wasn’t going to risk it, which, of course, is a classic response to patriarchy. We see women doing this all the time. We collude in burying the intuitive, creative, imaginative feminine part of ourselves that the overly masculine world has no time for. But we need to insist that the world make time for it. That’s part of bringing male and female back into balance, and so, tapping back into the feminine, the psyche, the anima mundi. Just as an aside, my own partner has since come around quite a bit. We can actually have conversations about all of this now! He’s beginning to understand why the old stories matter. He’s actually studying Old Irish—and delving into these old texts and myths for himself—at an academic level, but that’s a good start.
The MOON: Did his change come about in part by your growing “rootedness” in place and feminine authority?
Blackie: To an extent, but I think it mostly came from our personal journey, which involved abandoning civilization and running off to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland to the Isle of Lewis, in 2010. We spent four years in the remotest part of the British Isles, in very extreme weather, with no television and barely any neighbors, looking after cows, sheep, ducks, hens, pigs, and growing close to the land. That exposure to the wild changed each of us in our own different ways. For me, that extremity broke through any sense I had of ever wanting to suppress anything I thought was important again. It was almost like the second part of learning to fly. A lot of bad stuff happened in that place, and a lot of good stuff happened; but all of it was absolutely real. I had the deepest relationship with the land that I’d ever had in my life. It was utterly transformative. Magic also happened in that place. I couldn’t deny it anymore, because it was just so very much a constant. It was undeniable even to a skeptic and a scientist. So my attitude became, “Hey. That’s the way it is. Sorry. Here I am. This is what I believe.” And through his own journey in that place, he became able to accept that.
The MOON: How do stories help us reweave the world and bring life back to the Wasteland? What is the connection between story and soul?
Blackie: In a Jungian, depth psychology way of looking at the world, the imagination is the foundation, or the structure, of psyche—its ground of being. And myth, archetype, story is the language of psyche. So myth, or story, is a way of connecting with soul—and I don’t just mean our individual souls, but the anima mundi, the soul of the world, as well: the soul that lives in everything and unifies the world.
The mythic imagination, in the way I teach it, is all about the ability to see beyond the everyday, to see more deeply, beyond this moment of our lives, to see bigger pictures. To have a concept of what our own journey is in this life, and how it might relate to larger forces at work. To have a concept of the unique gift that each of us brings to this world: your calling, or soul purpose, if you like. Stories can help us tap right into that place. There is an ancient Sufi idea that was expressed by French philosopher Henri Corbin that between the physical world of our senses and the mental world of the intellect lay a third world, which he translated as the mundus imaginalis, the imaginal world. Corbin said the Sufis believed that stories, metaphors, images, and archetypal characters had actual independent existence in that third world. So stories—the images, or archetypal characters, or plots, or symbols and metaphors—are, quite simply, bridges. We don’t make them up; they happen to us. And if we let them, they plug us right back into the soul of the Earth.
The MOON: Wow. One last question. How is the Heroine’s Journey different from the Hero’s Journey?
Blackie: I’m very interested in that these days. I’m developing some workshops about this, drawing on a concept I write about in The Enchanted Life. I believe the “post-heroic journey,” which probably has the same threads for both men and for women, is very much less about individual swashbuckling—going out and killing the dragon or defeating “the enemy.” It’s much more about community and compassion, and being in service to something greater than ourselves. Nevertheless, the Heroine’s Journey at some level has to be a woman’s journey, and there are some genuine differences between men and women beyond the biological. There’s a spectrum, of course, and social and cultural conditioning plays a big role in how the various qualities we think of as masculine or feminine are expressed in individuals, but particular skills and capacities have usually been associated with male and female ways of being in the world. Feminine wisdom, rather than masculine wisdom, is what the Heroine’s Journey is about. It’s about recovering her sense of imagination, of creativity, of spontaneity, of connection. It’s about acknowledging the energies that have been suppressed in the culture and not feeling that we have to make the Hero’s Journey in order to “succeed.” To me, it’s very much an imaginative, creative journey about reclaiming the connection we once had with the land and with its other-than-human inhabitants—and discovering how our own individual psyche is woven into the soul of the world.