archetype, autumn, awareness, beauty, being, between, Celtic, change, creation, creative, druid, element, equinox, flux, forest, holding, indigenous, language, liminal, meditation, mythology, offering, philosophy, process, ritual, shift, space, spiritual, summer, symbol, symbolic, symbolism, threshold, transformation, trees, votive, winter
For the most part these moments that defy articulation rest on a paradox: at every crossing there is always a moment in which one is neither on one side nor on the other, neither what one was nor what one will be … One is in suspension-hovering timelessly in between.
We welcomed the autumnal equinox last Sunday with a ritual in Visionsong. With votive offerings of smoke, apple, water, and tobacco, we bid farewell to summer and, together with the trees, turned our awareness toward the balance of light and dark, and began the journey toward Samhain and the approaching dark half of the year. The equinox is a liminal time, and certainly, the energy of Visionsong, and of the ritual we performed inhabited a gap, as it were, between summer and autumn. I think the liminality of the experience though is much larger than that. I have only rarely experienced a liminal time or place quite as abrupt as a single day or a single ritual. Nonetheless, the ritual was powerful for me, and led me into the embrace of autumn.
Within the transformative space of ritual it becomes clear that liminal places are places of power. Since I have had many significant experiences in liminal places, I have never really questioned this idea, but as I was pouring the votive offering in Visionsong, I asked myself why. I didn’t ask because it suddenly struck my philosopher’s mind to ask, but because the water I poured onto the altar seemed to have its own ideas on where to land, stubbornly ignoring my attempts to ‘aim.’ In a mundane setting, I might have tried harder to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish, but in the liminal state of ritual, the liminal time of dusk, and the liminal entry of the equinox, I just allowed it to go where it would go, to merge with the inherent energy of liminality.
Liminality, a term coined by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, is commonly understood to be a stage in ritual. The word comes from the Laten limen, which means threshold. In ritual, van Gennep postulated the concept of liminality as the place where the participant(s) moves from one state of being to another, as observed in rites of passage. He (and Victor Turner) defined three stages of ritual – the preliminal, the liminal, and the postliminal (these stages have obvious parallels with the separation, trials, and return phases of Campbell’s hero’s journey, suggesting that life itself is ritual). Thus, liminal places are active and dynamic, associated with a strong sense of movement from one place to the next. They are often associated with discomfort or disorientation as the old and familiar are left behind and the new and unknown are approached. Liminal places can be, as van Gennep and Turner described, phases of ritual but the energy of liminality can also be felt in physical places, such as a shoreline, an edge of a forest, or border regions. Whether in ritual or place, they represent and call into being a psychospiritual way of being; they are places of initiation and bridges into deeper mysteries of life. As inherent aspects of the life journey, they are both spatial and temporal in nature and can last for a moment (such as a day like the equinox), for longer periods of time (seasons), or even entire lifetimes (such as a monastic life). It is clear through these examples that liminality is relational – the state of some thing or place being liminal is always in relation to other things. Liminality is the in-between space of other things, physical, temporal, and spiritual.
Those periods of liminality which, when viewed temporally, are short, usually are constituent members of a longer period of liminality. For me, the equinox is an entry into an extended liminal time and place that lasts longer than one day. Autumn is a liminal place itself – a gradual period of shifting, of transformation. The days are still warm and sunny, but the nights are coming sooner and are becoming cooler. The trees are still mostly green, but are tinged along the tips and veins of their leaves in magnificent orange. Autumn is clearly no longer summer, but it just as clearly is not yet winter. The event of the equinox ushers in an extended but indeterminate period of liminality; it is an entry to liminality, not only liminality-as-such. It is one phase of a process of becoming something as of yet unknown that, in many respects, will not be what was before.
The unknowable aspect of liminality suggests to me that the power of liminal places and times must lie in potentiality. Not restrained by being exactly this or exactly that, things can (and do) become anything. Potentiality was seen by the ancient and medieval philosophers as a lower form of being (as opposed to actualized potential), and, if one is prone to accept a teleological worldview, perhaps those thinkers were right in some respects. However, aside from the obviously dangerous social and environmental conclusions that have been drawn from the idea of some qualitative chain of being, the emphasis on the superiority of actualized being seems all too often to ignore the importance of potentiality as the source of actualized being. Without potentiality for actualization, actualization obviously cannot occur. Liminal places and times, in their freedom of potentiality are the fertile breeding grounds of becoming and being, of flux and form.
Inevitable questions arise. If we can accept that there is both form and flux, that there are intrinsic and accidental properties to things, and that it is possible both for change to occur to a thing without that thing losing its thinghood and that change can occur that actually does cause a thing to become another thing – just how is potentiality propelled into becoming, into being? How does potentiality become actuality? Of course, in the case of the seasons, it is due to the tilt, rotation, and orbit of the earth around the sun, but what does it mean for those of us practicing a spirituality that attempts to align itself with the processes of the earth? How does the potentiality of our spirit become embodied actuality, and how does the current actuality of our spirits eventually transform and free the way for new potentiality to develop into new actuality? How does liminality impact our way of being in the world? There must be a creative energy in the universe; one that is especially strong in liminal times and places and active in transforming potentiality into actuality.
In the Celtic tradition, Neart is this creative energy that is the source of what happens. Some have claimed Neart to be a Christian idea, but in the etymology of the word, we find an indication as to the ancient and widespread acknowledgement throughout the history of western civilization of the concept of the word. MacBain’s dictionary translates the Irish word Neart as “strength.” The concept is known to all of the Celtic languages – in Welsh and Cornish it is Nerth, in Breton it is Nerz, and in Gaul it was known as Nerto. The root ner is is also common to many other languages, such as nár in Sanskrit and in Latin, Nerus. The nár in Sanskrit is translated as “man,” and in Lithuanian, “to will.” In Old Norse, the word Njörðr is also the name of a God in the Vanir of Norse Mythology, and according to some sources, a male-female twin God/ess (Tacitus named him Nerthus but claimed he was “Mother Earth.”). Njörðr is the God of wind, fertile land, seamanship, fishing, and fertility and wealth in general. In the Edda, he is credited with the ability to calm the sea and fire. If we follow Tacitus and accept Njörðr, or his sister-wife Nerthus as Mother Earth, who was also associated with lakes and wells, we find similarities to the Irish Goddess Danu, and to the Celtic reverence for holy wells.
This etymological analysis of the word gives us the concepts of strength, man, to will, and an image of a mother goddess, granting fertility, prosperity, and creation. It is also essential to note that in the relationship of Njörðr, as a God of fertile land, and Nerthus the goddess of water, we find a liminal place where two elements meet. This creates an image of Neart as a source of power, creation, and fertility in liminal places – the power which transforms potentiality into actuality.
Anything that happens, happens because of Neart. How many branches will a tree have? Which way will they bend? What scent does the wind carry and which song will the birds sing? What color are the clouds? Where will the sun set today? Neart is in nature, on the quiet woodland path and birdsong filled moor, on the mountain peak, and in the gentle waves of a valley lake. But it is also in the deepest urban desperation and destruction, pain, and suffering. Through imbas, It finds its way into the artists brush and the poet’s pen. Neart is the very fabric of the universe that determines all things, often long before they occur. It is the driver of all that is. It not only creates the branches on a tree, it also calls situations into being, working through what we perceive as coincidence and synchronicity.
Neart loves beauty. Neart loves the language of symbolism. It talks to us through dreams and nature. It is multi-layered and whispers to us through the voices of other people and other beings; we need only listen to this other conversation. Neart knows no boundaries, it is everywhere and everywhen. Neart is a process, an ever unfolding chain of events, working in cause and effect, it powers the ongoing creation of the universe. We see Neart in action as we witness the turning of the seasons and enter into the liminal place of autumn, when things begin to die away. Neart is only now but is ever active – even in the dying of summer, it promises new things will eventually be born.
Whether of Pagan or Christian origins, the existence of Neart within liminal places should be acknowledged and accepted and welcomed into spiritual life as an integral element of practice. It is the usher leading us toward becoming actuality. Neart, to some extent, could be compared to the Dao. It is the way that we can’t follow and can’t help but follow. The purpose of Neart is to provide the engine for creation, and we actively participate in Neart, whether knowingly or not. We are one with it and we are made up of it. We cannot direct it, nor should we try. Neart is not to be controlled, it can only be joined and allowed, enabled to unfold through us. Neart is indifferent, and thus liminal places, infused with it, can be risky – Neart takes all of the impulses of the universe, our thoughts, our emotions, our desires, and lends its power to bring the things into being that we have determined. Neart is law. Everything happens based on this law and emerging through and because of Neart. As a ‘hollow bone,’ We can only intimate what it is creating. We should try to align our actions with it, and the best way we can do that is to simply acknowledge that it is, and through that awareness allow it to dream us into our becoming, rather than attempting to direct it, or carelessly ignore it. We cannot do the will of Neart, but we can let the will of Neart do us.
We are the heirs of a wealth of wisdom on just how to do this. This wisdom takes many forms – mythology, mystical or indigenous forms of religiosity, and many branches of psychology. When engaging in ritual, we are engaging in the conversation between Neart, soul, and the world. Through this, the emergent unknown is aligned with Neart and allows our spiritual life to expand and transform. This transformative development is nourished by the integration of the knowing of the mind and the knowing of the body. It is in the liminal place between knowing and myth that this occurs – through being open to the felt-sense provoked by the symbols of Story, the liminality of myth becomes perpetual in knowing. The dense symbols continue to transform and inform our development, and allow us to inhabit the liminal place between our whole self and the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Through the resultant form of the higher Self realized through individuation, we are better equipped with content to engage the task of being human in the ‘real’ world. As a form of archetypal meditation, ritual aims to facilitate the archetypal conversation between spirit, Neart, and body through the acknowledgement and enactment of the archetypal images of mythology.
The pouring and smudging of votive offerings on the equinox was a celebration of Neart flowing in the liminal spaces brought into awareness through the intentional inhabiting of ritual. It was Neart, residing within potentiality, which determined the flow of the water onto the altar and the rising of the smoke into the sky. The ritual was a means for me to become able to hold the space for the extended liminality of autumn. It reminded me that, all too often, it seems we don’t take the time to experience the power of liminal places, moving instead as quickly possible through them, eager to get to the next meeting, class, or event. There is also the temptation, once a liminal place has been inhabited, to stay there, to reject the real world. There is much to say, however, for standing still in the moment, for inhabiting liminal places and allowing them to nourish our spirits for when we do move on and engage that next appointment in the ‘real’ world. On the equinox, we enacted an intentional Story of Neart and the perpetual liminality of mythological consciousness allowing our lives to become a story of potentiality moving into actuality – a process of form and flux that never ends.
 Crapanzano, V. (2004). Imaginative horizons: An essay in literary-philosophical anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. P. 61