Since the advent of time the function of myths and magical rituals was to generate harmony between the human mind, body and the surrounding world. Myths explained all physical phenomena using images borrowed from life – they were mystical dramatic texts, played out in a magical ritual to make the sun shine and the trees grow, to make the fields bear crops and to enable people to live without fear, in communion with Nature.
Mircea Eliade claims that myths spring from rituals of passage (birth, initiation, marriage, becoming a leader, death) and that they possess the symbolic content of those rituals, which is the death of the old imperfect “self that must be then born again, but on a higher level of consciousness. Man becomes whole here as an “integral” or “universal” person while discovering the symbols of his own body which is an “anthropocosm”. Eliade argues that symbols and mythical motifs still live in the unconscious of contemporary man (for example in the image of paradise lost). They frequently return in our dreams, in the reflections of philosophers and generally – in human imagination. This is because mythical thinking is one of the most universal forms of man’s consciousness. Nowadays the truth of myths is conveyed by works of art. In the contemporary world it is the artist who is their “sentinel”, or – as Joseph Campbell says – “the equivalent of the shaman” who personally participated in the myth by way of a magical ritual. Arranging and performing it (and in it) he experienced mythical reality and thus showed his people the way that would lead them towards spiritual life.
Natalia LL – an artist, and therefore a contemporary shaman – recalls the German myth about Odin whose figure itself, in Eliade’s opinion, possesses many shamanic features. Smali wonder, in my opinion, because old cultures that conceived the world as something democratic never clearly saw the difference between a god and a powerful sorcerer. Gods were often invisible magi, practicing behind the veil of Nature the same magic and spells which the shaman generated physically in his community.
Odin, boss of the other Nordic gods, the god of wisdom, is the most powerful sorcerer and the highest Magus. He is the prophet who knows the greatest mysteries of the world because he decided to submit himself to a hard initiation: for nine days Odin hanged on the sacred Cosmic Tree called YGGDRASIL. He died willingly (descending to Hell/Hel under one of the roots of the Tree) in order to acquire the knowledge of the dead (the wisdom of the runes and the power of clairvoyance), and then he was resurrected.
Natalia LL stages and takes part in precisely this fragment of this myth in her work called the Transfiguration of Odin. The work consists of three large-format photographs of three sitting figures. The first one depicts old Odin (he was always represented as an old man in mythological iconography), sitting with his head hanging down and resting on a hammer. His closed eyes suggest he is asleep, and at his feet lie a spear, a shield and a lily. The second photograph portrays a woman in black (“played” by Natalia here) in a triumphant pose. The scarf tied at the back of the woman’s head is decorated with the motif of the skull. Natalia is holding a double skull in her folded hands. Her face is blank, expressionless. The third photograph shows a young, strong man with a shield in one hand and a hammer in the other. The man and the woman are naked.
For those who know the Odin myth the suggestion of the work is clear. It could be interpreted as an image of death/descent into Hell, and the resurrection and rebirth of Odin in new form. In this case Natalia – the woman in black from the second photograph – would symbolize Hel here, the powerful and unfeeling queen of the underworld.
The props used are also intelligible. The hammer is a symbol of power and strength (and of willpower that rules the mind), the shield a symbol of heavenly perfection and ascendence into higher spheres. The skull is the home of the soul; in alchemy it is the vessel of all kinds of transformations.
Pain, symbolic death represented by the vision of the descendance to Hell (to the other world), is the typical element of all shamanic ceremonies of initiation. A shaman is the chosen one, a unique individual prone to asceticism and meditation who displays exceptional “special magical abilities”. For example he can put himself into an ecstatic trance, a lethargic sleep during which he experiences powerful visions of his soul leaving the body in order to go to Heaven or Hell and make contact with gods, ghosts of the dead, animals or Nature and acquire their knowledge.
The soul matures during this journey. And when it returns to the shaman’s body, his spiritual birth takes place and thus mystical wholeness is complete. After the “resurrection” the shaman often receives the gift of clairvoyance. All rituals of initiation are about the candidate’s search for power and tell the myth of renewal, rebirth by symbolic death.
In her next work Natalia LL changes into Odin’s ravens. Those two birds – Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) – were flying messengers of the Great Magus who gave him all Information they could find In all the spheres of the Cosmos. Mircea Eliade says that they represent typical shamanic auxiliary ghosts that reveal various mysteries of existence.
In his journey of initiation the shaman propitiates such auxiliary ghosts that usually take on an animal form. The shaman’s mastering of the animal language, most of all of the birds, means getting to know Nature’s secrets and the capacity to prophesize. Animals can reveal the mysteries of the future as they are regarded to be the vessels of the spirits of the dead or treated as epiphanies of the gods. Such auxiliary spirits are the actual sources of the shaman’s magical powers and he always draws on the assistance of those spirits in his physical relationship with Nature.
Eliade writes that when the shaman participates in animal life, he reintroduces the situation of mythical times, when the division between man and the animal world had not yet taken place. Being friends with animals and understanding of their language are symptoms of Paradise, signs that the shaman has reintroduced a heavenly situation that was lost at the beginning of time.
In the beginning man not only lived in peace with animals but he could also communicate with them. In fact, in mythical times all people could contact Heaven and Earth. Due to some unfortunate incident this communication was broken. However, the shaman is able to renew it, symbolically climbing to Heaven, often on a rainbow which many peoples consider to be a bridge, connecting Heaven and Earth.
In the Odin myth, the fortress ASGARD (Heaven) is connected with MIDGARD (Earth) by a wonderful bridge-rainbow called BIFROST.
Natalia LL prepared a performance called Rainbow. In her own interpretation and words: “l would like to stand inside a rainbow and using the language of semaphore signals, which is proof to electronic distortions, tell people that there is meaning to life. […] And even after death our energetic faculties shall not be forgotten.”
The aim of shamanic rituals is not only to channel cosmic forces (since the shaman can obviously travel between Heaven, Earth and Hell) but also to protect the psychological integrity of the community. Mainly by means of making the people aware of the meaning of life, making them realize that the world of death can be domesticated and that the fear of it can be diminished. In all shamanic rituals, death, as Eliade writes, is valued as the ritual of passage to a spiritual level of existence.
Thanks to the shaman who always acts in the interest of the community, man understands his place on earth and in the universe. He discovers his internal powers, learns – by means of his participation in the ritual – certain principal mythical revelations, and becomes aware of the spiritual unity of society.
Contemporary man lost not only this feeling of unity. He cannot find spiritual contact with the Cosmos, but also with himself because somewhere he has lost the key to the understanding of his life and does not remember its meaning. He treats the world solely materially instead of enjoying its beauty. He forgot that people are an integral, although rational, part of Nature, that they are its eyes, ears and thoughts.
Art (like shamanic rituals in the old days) reminds us of this truth. It is, as Natalia LL says – “the language of communication, of the initiation into a world, our knowledge of which can never be complete”, but which we can experience fully, living our lives consciously. Joseph Campbell argues that the function of the artist is to mythologize his surroundings and the world. Therefore, the artist, a creative, sensitive and unique individual among common mortals, teaches us how to live in harmony with ourselves, society and Nature. It makes us, the public, realize that eternity is here and now.
Alicja Cichowicz, 2010
Translated by Maciej Świerkocki