FANTAST IN FOCUS: GYRUS
Gyrus is the editor and psychonaut behind Dreamflesh, a dynamic webzine that explores the overlapping and often hard to articulate layers of the human psyche. First conceived in the 2000s, Dreamflesh has been a boon to readers interested in consciousness, ecology, and politics for over a decade. The project has many offshoots, one of which is North: The Rise and Fall of the Polar Cosmos, a book described as unveiling “the story of cosmology as a crucible for and mirror of the contours of the spirit, and the power structures of society”.
But North and Dreamflesh are not the only publications Gyrus has under his belt. More articles are slated for 2017 and beyond, and Gyrus has recently revamped the Dreamflesh website to address what he believes are the significant existential challenges of the present age. We spoke to Gyrus to learn more about his approach to world mythology, art, and spirituality.
The Custodian: Can you tell us more about your “gnostic experiences” on Ilkley Moor that inspired you to write North?
Gyrus: North became a very different beast, in its eventual incarnation, from the inklings I had of it on Ilkley Moor two decades ago. The full scope of the follow-up research and thinking ended up radically reframing those early experiences. But at the time, these experiences gave me the idea that the spinning of the sky around the north pole star formed a kind of primary cosmic image for humans. Something connected to the dome of the skull and the swirl of the hair, a resonance which formed the symbolic scaffolding for our sense of bodily unity with the cosmos. The first wave of research following this intuition overwhelmed me with the sense that I’d hit a very potent vein.
Actually the “gnostic” label, in the strict sense of transcendent grokking, is slightly misleading in retrospect. My obsession was to weave visionary experience into the fabric of scholarly research, and because I’d just emerged from academia, the heretically non-academic component seemed primary. But looking back, more important than the visionary experiences per se was the entire field that manifested in the relationship between dreams, synchronicities, rituals, the landscape, and book-based learning. I imagine this would be true for many historical Gnostics too, but for me this was ultimately scholarly, in that speculation was bounded by the known facts.
I’ve just re-read David Abram’s superb The Spell of the Sensuous, which suggests that our original animistic relationship to nature was lost through it being transformed into a relationship with the written word. The language of the birds fell silent as we invested our own externalised thoughts with a voice, a voice which spoke from dead pages that formerly supported the whispering of the leaves in the wind. Now obviously, being able to immerse back into that wordless world of natural voices is a wonderful thing. But stepping back with just one foot, keeping the other firmly in the Gutenberg galaxy, is also extremely interesting. Something sentient seems to rise up and busy itself forging connections in the space between the library and the moor.
In terms of specific experiences, one was a very simple illusion while sleeping alone out there, where I woke up to see a satellite—but instead of seeing it moving against the field of stars, I saw all the stars moving and it motionless. That was brief but staggering, and it triggered a visionary dream about the pole star, which I previously had no interest in. The pole star turned out to be a genuine key to the Swastika Stone carving, and weirdly related to the goddess Verbeia, whose Roman altar is in Ilkley. The other experience I’d mention is the ritual I did to Verbeia, asking for inspiration in researching her. I’d imagine it’s an underrated research strategy—she turned out to be very forthcoming.
C: As you note in an essay, the word “contemplation” derives from the pensive bird-watching rituals of Roman diviners. Have your altered consciousness experiments been more vivid in the open air?
G: There’s definitely something to getting out there in the open, altered states or not. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes and gear. You’re not really getting to know a landscape unless you’re out there in all the elements. You don’t want to be nature’s fair weather friend do you? And while we shouldn’t be naive about the social construction of nature, allowing that insight to smother the experiential basics seems self-defeating.
Abram’s book is interesting in this context, in how he focuses on the air as an invisible presence, something sensual which acts as a basis for our sense of conscious presence. Of course, as in many if not most languages, our words “spirit” and “psyche” are ultimately synonymous with “air”, “wind”, “breath”. This connects to myriad things, but I’d highlight here the most tangible manifestation of air—wind—and how that hooks our psychology and spirituality into the weather.
I’ve experienced the weather interacting in really interesting ways with outdoor rituals. Weather magic is an almost archetypal instance of magic among indigenous peoples. It deals with an emblematically chaotic system (in the chaos theory sense). So if you want, you can go to town with quasi-scientific explanations of magic in terms of subtle perturbations affecting large systems—a kind of esoteric butterfly effect. I’d prefer just to chuckle at the fact that “psyche” in Greek also means “butterfly”.
C: There’s an old, evocative proverb which goes something like this: “He who would learn to pray should go to the sea.” It seems to express something about the sensory-overloading, numinous power of the ocean. Have you had the opportunity to meditate in the presence of the Arctic Ocean?
I did visit Svalbard while I was writing North, though my timing to coincide with my birthday landed me in the most boring Arctic season—just as the light’s disappearing, but before the ice has really had a chance to take hold. I also missed the most spectacular aurora display for decades. Needless to say, the ocean was a bit of a disappointment too. Actually it was hard to encounter properly, since you’re not allowed outside town (Longyearbyen) without a guide who’s armed to deal with polar bears.
I don’t have any real magical relationship to the ocean yet, though it kept cropping up in the wake of North as the logical field to focus on after so long looking up at the sky. I’ll see if anything comes of that. Offhand, I can appreciate its relationship to prayer clearly—that sense of swelling surrender, fluid power, and facing unknown unknowns seems spot on for the act of prayer.
C: What are your favourite myths or folktales about the north? Have any of these played a psychogogic role in your dreams?
G: My favourite was a guiding template for my early thinking on polar cosmology: the creation of the world from the body of Ymir the giant in Norse myth. It has its cousins in other Indo-European traditions, and details vary. But the basics are an almost tantric cosmogony of carnal correspondences: flesh becomes earth, blood becomes sea, bones become rocks, hairs become trees, skull becomes sky, and brains become clouds. The implicit image there of lightning as flashes of inspired thought is a high point in myth for me.
It all connects to the polar view of things if you drop in the Latin term “vertex”—which refers to the crown of the head where the hair spirals, and to the celestial pole, around which the stars circle. The skull and sky reflect each other—there’s some really good mileage for outdoors meditation in there. The myth’s context crops up in the earliest Viking adventures to record voyages into the Arctic ocean. They related their experiences of mercurial ice and confounding weather to the Ginnungagap, the primeval void where Ymir dwelt.
Despite the fact that dreams sparked my initial obsession with the pole, I can’t recall any major role for myths of the north in my dream life. There is the fact that Ilkley Moor is properly speaking part of Rombald’s Moor, and Rombald is reputed to have been a giant. I used to dream about Rombald moving rocks around on the moor at night, so there was definitely a trace of Nordic myth in the atmosphere of the place for me. I guess Yorkshire is “The North” from the south of England perspective in that it’s where you first start to psychogeographically brush against that world, which shades into Scotland, then Scandinavia, the Arctic, and beyond.
C: What about art? Nicholas Roerich is possibly the best known painter of idealised boreal landscapes. Who are your favourite polar utopia artists?
G: I’m not heavily immersed in art. Roerich’s images are great, but—and this may be due to what I’ve had access to—I drew more inspiration from Geoffrey Ashe’s telling of his story (in The Ancient Wisdom) than from his images per se. But my major art experience in this field was undoubtedly of Reinhard Behrens. I saw his stuff first on the cover of a book I found by chance in a second-hand shop, The Idea of North by Peter Davidson. A few months later I was visiting a friend in Dundee. We were driving around Fife looking for souterrains when we saw signs for an arts festival in Pittenweem, a fishing village that—we discovered that day— is a veritable hive of artists.
The festival is basically the town’s artists opening their homes up. You wander into someone’s front room, check their stuff out, say hi as you go out the kitchen at the back, into someone else’s back garden, and so on. It was pleasant enough, no amazing pieces but a unique experience. Then we wandered into a place that was utterly astonishing. It was like the abandoned hut of a legendary and eccentric Arctic explorer, meticulously constructed, everything weathered and intriguing. There was also a Buddhist-styled cabinet holding a large brown fur, gold-lined cloak, purportedly made from the last Yeti. We’d wandered into Behrens’ house.
A lot of his art is concerned with a little explorer in a yellow submarine, suspended somewhere between Arctic myth and Himalayan fancy, searching for a lost region called Naboland. Behrens creates archaeologically-authentic imagined artefacts to evoke this realm (it turned out my friend knew Behrens from her work in the university’s art and imaging department). I can’t say the art itself is profound for me—it evokes wonderfully, and is essential for anyone interested in boreal legend. But it’s perhaps too reliant on whimsy for my taste, which would always favour something with uncanny edges as well, such as Leonora Carrington. (Why mention her? I think I’m thinking of interesting polar elements in her novel, The Hearing Trumpet.) But the experience of encountering Behrens was incomparable—a density of serendipity which can be seen as an inherent part of the art experience. Which may actually be the ultimate art experience: when reality spontaneously collaborates.
C: What has been your experience with DIY publishing? Has your mission for Dreamflesh changed over time?
G: I’ve been incredibly fortunate. At the same time, I think there’s a lot to be said for passion and belief, going forward as if something can’t not happen, and it happening in the wake. Firstly I cut my teeth when it was still relatively possible to live on the dole by choice. A friend got me into zines, and I started doing a zine based on dreams, which my friend photocopied “for free” at work. It was a great experience: typewriter, scissors, Pritt stick, research, collaboration.
By the time I came to do Towards 2012, I had access to DTP, and I wondered how much the zine aesthetic I was immersed in was based on choice rather than the necessities that guided the early days of DIY publishing – both for the counter-culture in the 70s and 80s, and myself in my early days. So I decided the goal with Towards 2012 would be to produce something as well as I could on zero resources. Everything fell into place. People just gave me money to do it –Julian Cope and Douglas Rushkoff were both benefactors. Pete Pavement in Hove offered to co-publish and distribute. I was heavily inspired by Simon Dwyer’s Rapid Eye, and I tried to fuse that underground coffee table thing with the lively mix of zine culture. It was the early days of the web, too, and I started folding that in, including quotes and website addresses in the margins to create networks of resonance across the contributions.
Dreamflesh emerged after 9/11 evaporated the remnants of my 90s utopian energy. I got really into James Hillman, and to some extent John Gray. Both in different ways acted as necessary counter-balances to the utopian narratives I’d absorbed from Terence McKenna, Norman O. Brown and others. But Dreamflesh was still very much concerned with politics, especially environmentalism, and with connecting such wide issues with personal experience through ecopsychology and dreamwork. Looking back at when the only issue of the print journal came out in 2006, it felt like a time when ecological issues were finally gaining traction in the mainstream narrative space, and there was still time to make real changes. Now, it looks like a lot of that opportunity has been squandered. But we’ll press on. I don’t believe in optimism which can only handle it if everything works out.
I’ve just revamped dreamflesh.com to start blogging again, and I’m hoping that some writer friends will be joining me to contribute there. Right now I think one of the most important things Dreamflesh can tackle is the tricky overlaps between its core concerns—ecology and esotericism—and the current wave of traditionalist myth-making and climate change denial. Finding the lines where we discriminate between taking time to understand broad human concerns, and putting up a fight against dangerous insincerity or ignorance is surely the hardest and most vital task afoot.
When I started out, these core concerns almost inevitably turned me away from left-wing politics in most recognisable forms. To a large extent, the occult and environmentalism were anathema to the radical left, and much of the mainstream left. They’ve mostly caught up in terms of the environment- there are some interesting re-readings of Marx’s views of ecology around. It might be a bit much to expect them to catch up with the occult! (Though Peter Lamborn Wilson has sketched outlines of what he terms a history of “left Hermeticism“).
In any case, I’ve retained a suspicion about the Left’s shortcomings, its in-fighting and jargon-heavy academics. But the reactionary anti-intellectualism around at the moment, and the neo-traditionalism manipulating it is clearly a danger of a different order. In some senses the environmentalism/esotericism overlap is an incredibly small niche in our culture. But it touches on some really important and difficult issues at the root of current problems—reaction against modernity, the valuation of immediate experience versus abstractions, the ability to process complex information and act in the face of uncertainty, the manipulation of the imagination (see: Giordano Bruno). So in that sense the project’s remit deals with the very heart of what’s going on now.
I think this was a big impetus behind the narrative of the book North. Both occultism and environmentalism have strong anti-authoritarian streaks, but—as we saw in the left’s inability to properly grapple with them—there’s also an air of pre-modern “tradition” around them, which can be refreshing, but often is stifling. When I realised that—contra [Mircea] Eliade—hunter-gatherer culture wasn’t just some long fade-in for traditional sacred myth and ritual, but in many ways its own mode of living, with some very anti-traditional elements, I felt this was an important twist for our large-scale image of our past, and one which suggests some potentials for a progressive pagan spirituality. (Of course it’s a development of McKenna’s “archaic revival”, though I think McKenna was sometimes out of date with his anthropology.)
Traditionalism often marks the advent of the modern era as a singular historical rift, where secularisation began to disenchant the world, and we began to lose our roots. Of course there’s an important truth in this, but when we realise that the advent of civilisation was also a rift, where the scope for centralised power and oppressive hierarchies increased dramatically, it destabilises this traditionalist two-stage model of history with a problematic third initial stage. This vast foraging era wasn’t the golden age of the romantic imagination, but it contains plenty of legitimate fuel for the imagination which wants to tease apart animist spirituality and engagement with nature from the magnetism of civilised myth, and which wants to imagine an egalitarian paganism.
The fact that it’s hard to be sure about what was going on, say, 100,000 years ago, is part of the attraction of this for me. It’s a constant reminder that ultimately we’re constantly grounding ourselves in fantasy, and justifying ourselves through fantasy. It’s a necessary task, which is best done with awareness, with Hillman’s psychological “seeing through”.
C: Which movies and books would you recommend for amateur Hyperborean psychonauts?
G: I’ve heard North by Gyrus is worth a go! If you allow the idea of both poles occupying the same mythical space, it’s hard to resist or beat John Carpenter’s The Thing (based in Antarctica). Together with Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter (which is properly boreal) and Reza Negaristani’s Cyclonopedia (a book ultimately too abstruse for me, and more Middle Eastern, but a useful reference point here), there’s a complex modern cosmology being drafted. There’s certainly enough in there to last you well past the amateur stage—but they would serve well starting out, too. They root the polar mythic dimension in the crisis of the present, which I think is important.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is well worth studying, too. It’s only briefly located in the far north, but again I think it resonates deeply with the present world’s connection to polar myth. Its legacy has ensured its status as modern myth, but that power is right there in the original text, more than anywhere. Also, if you enjoy cinematic exegesis and you’re very imaginative, try Hitchcock’s Vertigo (that advice kind of works in any context).
Joscelyn Godwin’s book Arktos deserves credit—it arrived just when I started out, and was an invaluable source at the time. Touching more on the mystical aspects of the boreal, Peter Levenda’s Stairway to Heaven is a good round-up of material and speculation on Ursa Major, and convincingly argues that polar myth is as important in occultism as it is neglected. And Henry Corbin’s The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism is essential for grasping the esoteric appeal of the north. But I would advise something more down to earth after all that. David Abram’s aforementioned The Spell of the Sensuous isn’t concerned with anything specifically northern, but its treatment of cosmology and animism should feed fruitfully into the imagination of anyone who’s ventured far in this direction.
C: What are you working on now?
G: The dreamflesh.com revamp is my main focus at the moment. After finishing North I had an idea for a novel, which is shelved for now. Then I thought I’d like to resurrect Dreamflesh the print journal (issue two, ten years later!). But for various reasons that foundered. Right now I just want to get back into the habit of writing, so blogging it is. I hope I’ll find time to write longer pieces for the essays section I definitely want to do something about the cultural psychology of Universal Basic Income. There’ll be more interviews with inspiring figures, and I’m going to try to get back into the discipline of reviewing most of the books I read—old or new—the review as a platform for thinking things through.