Tag Archives: enlightenment

Finnegan’s Wake, a Glance at Irish Mysticism through Lyrical Satire

 

Finnegan’s Wake is amongst my favorite traditional Irish songs and it has been a staple of the Irish balladeer’s repertoire since the middle of the 19th century. Over the past several decades it has been covered by great and legendary Irish bands like The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, the Pogues, and most recently the Massachusetts-based Dropkick Murphys.  However, like much of Irish lyrical tradition stretching back to the ancient bards “Finnegan’s Wake” is in reality a work of deep esoteric value cleverly disguised as a silly drinking song that only the initiated were likely to fully comprehend.

At Face Value

The story tells of Tim Finnegan, a poor construction worker with a love for the liquor who drank a bit too much before work one morning, fell from a ladder, broke his skull and died. Upon the eve of his wake his friends and relatives arrive at his home to mourn him.  Biddy O’Brien begins crying loudly and is essentially told to shut up by one Paddy McGee.

Once Maggie O’Connor gets involved in the exchange telling Biddy she’s wrong, Biddy punches her in the mouth, leaving her ‘sprawling on the floor.”  Then all Hell breaks loose as the entire house becomes engaged in a brawl “woman to woman and man to man,” brandishing their shillelaghs, the classical Irish club.

A bottle of whiskey is thrown across the room, just barely missing Mickey Maloney, and instead landing on Tim Finnegan’s bed with the whiskey scattering all over his body. At that point Tim revives and “rises from the bed,” and delivers the punch line of the ballad; “Whittle your whiskey around like blazes, Thanum an Dhul![1] Do you think I’m dead?”

 

The Mystery Unveiled

While this ballad is typically considered a comical drinking song, it actually gives us a glimpse into an old Irish and western mystical tradition.

Tim Finnegan is a construction-worker. Although this was a common vocation amongst Irishmen throughout the 19th century, there is much more being said here than meets the eye, or ear.  As the lyrics clearly tell us “to rise in the world he carried a hod.” A hod is a tool used for carrying bricks and mortar, telling us that Mr. Finnegan was, in fact a mason. Since no later than 1717 AD the repository for esoteric wisdom in Western countries has been the order of Free and Accepted Masons who trace their historic origins to the medieval stone masons guilds, and from there symbolically to the ancient builders of Greek, Egyptian and Israelite temples.

Let us also take note that Tim Finnegan carries his hod “to rise in the world.” In Freemasonry, it is said that a candidate is “raised” to the degree of a Master Mason. Freemasonry also makes use of the symbolism of death and resurrection through the allegory of the architect Hiram Abiff.

Architecture, construction work and craftsmanship have been metaphors for mystical knowledge going back thousands of years. In ancient Irish mythology the three brothers Luchta, Goibniu, and Credne are known as the Trí Dée Dána (the three gods of art).  Each represented the respective trades of carpentry, blacksmithing, and silver-smithing, and they crafted the weapons which the Tuatha Dé Danann (Irish ancestor gods) used to conquer the Fomorians (Irish beings of chaos and darkness).

In ancient Egypt, the god Ptah was the patron of craftsmen and architects, and he was closely associated as an aspect of the dying and resurrecting god Osiris.  Both of these deities were incorporated by the Greeks into the god Dionysus, well known as a patron of wine and spirits.  It is more than coincidence that Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps the most well-known dying and resurrecting god is often cited as having been a carpenter before he began his spiritual mission and he, much like his forebears also had an affinity toward life-giving and preserving drink.

A further look at the lyrics of this ballad reveals that at the wake of Finnegan they placed a gallon of whiskey at his feet and a barrel of porter at his head. This sentiment is echoed in the Irish ballad “Jug of Punch” in which the balladeer requests upon his death “just lay me down in my native peat with a jug of punch at my head and feet.”  This is a particularly Irish rendition of the tradition found amongst the world’s cultures of making sacramental offerings to the dead.  The making and pouring of libations is well documented in European traditions.

As mentioned previously, Jesus, Osiris and Dionysus are not only associated with death and resurrection, they are all three also closely associated with drinking rituals. Amongst other things, Dionysus is a god of wine. Osiris is said to have taught the world the art of brewing.  Jesus turned water into wine. Similarly, the Irish craftsman-god Goibniu also brewed the beer of immortality.

The English word whiskey is derived from the Irish Gaelic uisce beatha which translates as “the waters of life.” So when the whiskey scatters across the corpse of Tim Finnegan, it literally, magically and sacramentally imbues him with life; a spiritual conception which stretches back through centuries of esoteric tradition.

Conclusion

The dying and resurrecting god is not just a rhetorical device for dramatic affect. To ancient civilizations death and rebirth are symbolic of the annual cycle, the dying and rebirth of the summertime, the growing season and of the sun, so often symbolic of divinity. This symbolism has been revised, reincorporated and redistributed as a multitude of myths, legends and doctrines throughout the world in order to teach each civilization or cult’s particular perspective on the meaning of creation.

A creator god’s primary attribute is creativity, and this trait has been imitated through the creative works of humans whom are believed to be made in the divine image. Art, music, agriculture and most especially architecture has long been associated metaphorically if not literally with godliness, and enlightenment.
Finnegan’s Wake is far more than just another drinking song. It is a humorous retelling of an ancient initiation myth.  Tim Finnegan is not just a drunk construction worker who died and came back to life.  He is the personification of the mystery of the dying and resurrecting god represented in the form of Irish lyrical satire.

[1]d’anam ‘on Diabhal. a common curse: your soul to the Devil, from the Irish D’anam don Diabhal

What is Enlightenment?

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“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep Then God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.”

This first passage from the Book of Genesis hearkens back to the earliest times, the times even before light. Though allegorical at best, these words illustrate the scene of our great creator, for the first time shedding light on an infant world.

Similar creation myths from around the world illustrate the same basic imagery of a world in darkness which only truly comes to life after the divine powers create the sun, bringing the land out of darkness, enlivening it so it may become fruitful and prosperous. The lesson in these stories seem to be pointing us toward a certain direction, as if to suggest that only after being brought from darkness to light that a person can truly live to his full potential. This is the earliest seed of enlightenment.

The word inlihtan first appeared in Old English around 1382. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the term was used figuratively meaning “to remove the dimness or blindness from one’s eyes or heart.” (1) In this case enlightenment would be the state or process of doing so. Light, figuratively is what has been sought by all of humanity from birth, whether theologian, legislator or scientist. Countless symbols both secular and religious illustrate this point. The solar cross, an equal armed cross within a circle is likely the world’s most ancient invented spiritual symbol. It can be found throughout all of history inscribed from Ireland to Japan, from northern Scandinavia down through Africa, Australia and Pacifica. The solar cross is said to represent the solar calendar, marking the solstices and the equinoxes and is often credited to “sun-worship.”

In the Americas, Native religions also fixated on this solar symbol as the most significant spiritual metaphor. In English, this pan-Indian circumscribed cross is referred to as the Medicine Wheel. Amongst its many uses the Medicine Wheel is not only a symbol of the sun but wheelit is also a gauge by which to judge an individual’s level of knowledge and insight. The four corners of the cross usually represent the four directions, each one associated with a particular animal or spiritual being, representing certain desirable attributes associated with them. In the book “Seven Arrows,” Hyemeyohsts Storm allegorically describes the process by which the individual may come to enlightenment by way of the Medicine Wheel, attaining the various attributes associated with each point and thereby becoming a complete human being.

In more Buddhist circles enlightenment is described as a state of “wisdom that arises from the direct experience of all phenomena being empty of independent existence.”(2) This definition is more literal than the figurative definition previously given; “to remove the dimness or blindness from one’s eyes or heart,” but in essence it still remains the same. When one “sees” the light, he effectively “sees” or comprehends reality on a much higher than mundane level, no longer bound by flawed reason operating in darkness. Light has been shed upon obscure and often mysterious phenomena. The enlightened is knowledgeable and wise regarding his relationships, his role in society and the significance of everyone and everything else with whom he interacts. It is from the human quest for this figurative light that all our arts, sciences and religions were developed, originally as one quest for knowledge and meaning and later breaking up into separate specialized disciplines.

buddha

In the modern western world we have been brought up to think of religion as an organized system of belief and practice, following particular creeds and professing faith in a divine being. This idea certainly fits the definition of religion but the word is hardly confined by it. The Latin origin of the word had a far more pragmatic application regarding its relationship, not only to the divine but to everyone and everything around the person. In Latin the word religre means to bind and comes from the verb “ligre, to close or combine, to create an alliance or to make a deal to form a bond or to create a relationship.

Other words such as legislation and delegation also find their roots in this verb; the process of defining morality and proper behavior between a person, his fellow humans and his government or between governments religre. Ideally, this is achieved through the constant pondering of right and wrong, propriety and impropriety and through discourse with others doing the same. In society both ancient and contemporary, legislation even defines kinship, of who can and cannot marry due to how they are related or how it is perceived that they should or should not relate to each other. As any anthropologist will likely agree; kinship is one of the most vital foundations of coming to terms with a society’s traditions, laws and religion.

It is clear that the word religion in its truest definition reflects a system of relationships, not just a system of belief. It more properly refers to cultural paradigms and organized principles of morality. What is morality other than the proper behavior one human should have towards all his relations? Enlightenment is the state or process of pondering the mysterious or seemingly inexplicable, to organize thoughts, create theories and test them for the purpose of bettering the self and society. Philosophers, physicians and metaphysicians have continuously sought to shed light on obscure and illusive subjects, rendering them into workable formulas of knowledge and theory. Physical science perhaps most of all has sought and often achieved creating light from darkness and knowledge where none existed before and defining relationships between geometric shapes and numbers or strands of DNA. This is the most natural of human aspirations; to learn and develop, to mature into wisdom, organize it and apply it, passing it on to the next generation. This is the process of enlightenment.

Some theories suggest that the linguistic use of the word enlightenment is a remnant of “sun-worship,” an outdated and archaic form of religion. How unfortunate that they should have such an unenlightened perception of the subject. Sun-worship, if it ever really existed in any true form was no doubt an outgrowth of humanity’s natural inclination to seek the light of truth and understanding, the sun being the earliest example of luminescence and its contrast to darkness. In the light of day, primitive man could analyze his environment and learn. Darkness represented ignorance and lack of perception. Therefore it is only through light, even the dim glow of the stars that one could discern, learn and develop.

benfranklin
Benjamin Franklin

It should come as no surprise that the first great period of European discovery, development of the arts, sciences, government and religion, emerging from the ignorance and oppression of the Dark Ages is typically referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment Age was defined by reason and that humans by nature are autonomous, responsible for their own self development and the welfare of society. Self-development was often defined as the citizen’s responsibility through their own efforts to be educated and participate in politics in order to help reform the ills of society. It is from this era of enlightenment that the United States Declaration of Independence was written declaring that it was the people’s right and our destiny endowed by our Creator, entitled by the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God to liberate ourselves from tyranny. This was revolutionary thinking in its day. Political revolution was everywhere and it redefined Europe from the ground up. The Age of Enlightenment was defined by revolution and redefinition

Enlightenment is more than a metaphor and it is not just an abstract idea involving transcendental escapism from worldly suffering. Nor is it the result of diligently following a particular creed or maintaining a particular set of teachings and exercises or any other magical formula. Such things are merely working tools to help along the way. Enlightenment is a process of seeking and uncovering the truth about ideas, traditions, institutions and relationships and then putting them into action. Enlightenment is only enlightening in action even if that action is pursuing stillness. Balance and propriety must be nurtured. Wrong action and reaction must be subdued. The path of enlightenment is a process of discovery, reflection and devotion. It is the continuously seeking of the light of knowledge and defining our world, liberating the human race from darkness and tyranny.  Only in this way will we ever see a truly enlightened age.

(1) Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 13 Nov. 2007. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/enlighten

(2) http://www.kusala.org/udharma6/enlightnirvana.html