I’ve been struggling for a number of days with how to approach this part of my writing, the part where I share some deep background information about the Golden Chain [what I have learned from my reading and my reflections]. My right-brained nature resists the path of data and information, just as a matter of preference. However, I think if you, and I, will muster some patience for the next couple of blog entries, we have a chance of weaving a nicely constructed willow basket from these various twigs and thoughts. The basket, it is my hope, will be sturdy and real enough to contain all our future reflections on, and experiences of, the Imaginal.
For a start: let’s bring a real expert onto the field:
Patrick Harpur’s two volumes, THE PHILOSOPHER’S SECRET FIRE and DAIMONIC REALITY: A Guide to the Otherworld, speak with breathtaking depth and clarity to the nature of the Golden Chain. Harpur is an eminent scholar and is on very good terms with the Imaginal Realm: he’s got the skinny on this one. His writing on this should not be missed, for it captures much of the sweeping breadth of the Golden Chain’s appearance throughout human history. A big basket, indeed.
In this and future blog entries, I will be doing kind of a counterpoint to Harpur: that is, I will be pointing first here, and then there, to moments and brief examples in the history of the Golden Chain, not to the broad sweep. I will point out a few items to notice about the seeming structure of many encounters with Imaginal Presences, as they are recorded historically. The striking opportunities and challenges brought by the Imaginal into our realm will become quickly evident, and we will move on from there.
Okay: now that we’ve saddled up, here is my three-sentence summary of Who and What Is the Golden Chain:
The links that make up the lineage of the Golden Chain are the individual people, some of the great schools of thought, certain religious belief systems at certain times, mystics, some of the saints, the alchemists, depth psychologists, certain ancient Greek philosophers, artists, dreamers, poets, certain philosophers—people who experienced the presence of the Imaginal in their lives and were inspired, even transformed, by it. These particular people were so struck by their experiences that they committed to writing, talking, philosophizing, storytelling, artmaking, dancing, etc.,–in response, and as I see it, their creations are the links in the Golden Chain. Over the thousands of generations of human experience, many of their creations have been preserved, and , crucially, their wisdom is still available to us. As I have studied, these last five years, among the writings of such long-dead people, I have discovered a cadre of colleagues, with whom I share mutual questions and wonderments. I have, with guidance, learned skills in relating to the Imaginal and helping others to do so. In the process, I’ve made the satisfying discovery that my lifelong development of spiritual and artistic skills has come into full use, as well.
Let’s start, here, with another bottom line:
Human beings have been experiencing the presence of images from “some other realm not our own” for thousands of generations. Such experiences seem to be a fully normal part of our human heritage: they’re in our wheelhouse. We can survive them. We can even become skilled at receiving them.
Think about it: since the moment we developed the capacity to tell a tale, humans have passed on their experiences of being greeted—or confronted—by presences who seemed “not of this world.” We are all familiar with tales of elves, faeries, mermaids, selkies, swan maidens, centaurs, shapeshifting coyotes, giants. These stories were passed down generation after generation, with more added each century. The oral tradition that carried them forward I regard as the earliest link in the lineage of the Golden Chain.
If we track Patrick Harpur’s multi-century scan of these tales, we begin to notice certain commonalities within these tales. Pausing to take a look at this will show us a bit about the nature of the Imaginal, and what’s afoot in these appearances. [It might help if you call to mind a fairy tale you remember from childhood—the one I think of is Rumplestiltskin!]
First off, the Imaginal Presences in these tales show up for their own reasons. Nobody conjures them or bosses them around. They advise, or instruct, maybe even terrify or trick, the humans, and then they return to their own realms. The Presences are not necessarily “good”, though some are quite good. More often than not, theirs is a somewhat disturbing presence. The tales themselves seem to impart a certain ethic, for their listeners, about how to relate to the Presences when they arrived: 1) treat them with respect; 2) take heed of their message; and 3) NEVER attempt to command the Presence or attempt to follow it to the Otherworld from which it came. The tales seem to normalize the appearance of Imaginal Presences while at the same time teaching a cautious sort of “etiquette” when in their presence.
Moving forward from the oral tradition, let’s look at two experiences of Imaginal Presence visitation as recorded in earlier Western history. These examples might be familiar to you, though maybe you’ve not thought of them as “possibly real” before:
- A young child in rural England, in the early 19th century, is playing outside on a sunny day. He turns his head to look toward the sun, but instead of seeing the actual sun and its nearby clouds, he beholds a host of golden angels pouring out form the golden orb. He never forgets it. Experiences like this—seeing something ordinary as though lit from within or from beyond, called “second sight”—continue throughout his life. He dedicates himself to depicting these images in his art and poetry, and he writes theology and philosophy about what they imply about the nature of reality. We know this young child as the poet William Blake, one of the links in the Golden Chain.
- A young adult man, hiking in wild country on an inner quest for his life’s purpose, suddenly is confronted on the trail by a strong, winged “man”—now called by tradition an “angel”. They wrestle fiercely! Even though the winged man is very, very strong, the young man will not cease struggling, insisting that the winged man first give him a name. Finally, the winged man does. That name is Israel, and the young Israel is marked for the rest of his life by a wound from this ferocious encounter. He is wounded, yes: but he has his name.
I chose the above stories to share here because they reveal what, for me, are often important elements of the Imaginal encounter: one, the humans were caught off-guard by the sudden appearance of the Imaginal Presence; and two, the encounter with the Imaginal Being changed the trajectory of their lives.
In my next entry, we will look at some much more recent experiences of Imaginal Presence…and from there, we can begin to circle some of the thrilling questions that the Imaginal Realm raises for us…