Cosmology is the study of the structure of the universe, the cosmos, or a description of that structure. “Cosmos” is related to the word “cosmetic,” which tells us one thing right off – the cosmos that is described is beautiful in its structure. It is orderly and opposed to chaos.
Some readers may remember an article I wrote on Proto-Indo-European cosmology that was published in Druid’s Progress 15 (1995). As a quick summary, this cosmology, which is reflected in the descendant traditions, consists of a hemispherical earth which is both surrounded and supported by the sea. At its center stands a tree, a mountain, or a mountain with a tree on top of it.
For simplicity’s sake, I will just use the image of the tree. This tree is fed by a well that extends to the waters under the earth. In turn, the fruits of the tree drop into the surrounding sea. In the sea itself (and beyond it) dwell the Outsiders, usually depicted in the form of serpents. The pattern formed by this interaction was called *artus by the Proto-Indo-Europeans (which became wyrd in Old English and rta in the Vedas, for instance). This cosmology is best preserved in the Norse tradition, but is found in attenuated version in the other Indo-European traditions. The most important aspects of this cosmology are first that there is a reciprocal relationship between the tree and the waters, and second that the beings of chaos exist in the waters that feed the tree, that then trans-forms the chaos into cosmos.
This is, of course, a mythical image. I like to define myth as a story that is true whether it happened or not. A mythical image such as this cosmology is true even if it does not correspond to the physical universe. It shows truth in a pictorial way that may not be able to be expressed in pictures or mathematical equations.
The truths embedded in this cosmological image are numerous. For now I wish to concentrate on the order implied in the cosmology.
For make no mistake, this is an image of order, the order of the Artus. Although it makes provision for the existence of chaos, it does so only either to oppose the chaos or to incorporate it into order. The snakes at the bottom of the tree, and the chaos they introduce into the well that waters the tree are both set to naught by the overwhelming power of the order of the cosmos. The Artus subsumes all disruptions and transforms them into order.
It is a cliche that myths are stories enacted by ritual, and that rituals are merely acted out myths. Like all cliches, this is not totally true (there are indeed myths without ritual and rituals without myths (see O’Flaherty for some of these)), but in this aspect of the cosmology the cliche holds true. The order of the cosmology is reflected in the order of the ritual. In its most obvious sense this is clear in ADF ritual. The tree and the well are right there, in symbolic form. Some groves pour out water around the sacred space, surrounding it with water as the universe is surrounded.
But it is clear in a far more subtle sense as well. Not only are the elements of the cosmos present in ritual, but the relationship between them as well. The order is present.
In fact, the establishment and reinforcement of the order are among the main functions of the ritual. One of the purposes of ritual, as observed by Mircea Eliade, is a recapitulation of the cosmogony, or, in everyday language, a repetition of the forming of the universe. Indeed, Bruce Lincoln has shown quite conclusively that this was one of the purposes of sacrifice, the centerpoint of Indo-European ritual. Finally, I would like to invoke the name of Clifford Geertz, and his famous formulation of religion as models of and models for – the cosmos exists in such and such a way, and we perform rituals in such and such a way, and the two models are in intimate relationship with each other. We perform rituals the way we do because the cosmos is the way it is (at least in a mythical sense).
Just as in the cosmos, there will be elements of chaos intruding into the ritual. Some of the potential elements – the Outsiders – are consciously and ritually banished. Others arise during the ritual itself. An object is dropped, a line is misspoken, someone stumbles. Different Indo-European traditions have handled these mistakes in different ways. The Romans were perhaps the most radical. Priests, who were usually religiously untrained (they were performing their duties as part of a political career), were assisted by trained professionals, who read the
ritual words from a book for the priests’ recitation. Any major mistake in the ritual by the amateur priests would necessitate its repetition. In Vedic ritual, there was an official, the Brahman, whose sole function was to observe the ritual, making sure everything went according to plan. He was considered the most important official, and was given the major part of the offering, and later the most pay, even if he did nothing but sit still for the entire course of the ritual.
Whatever the approach, the important thing is that chaos does not subsume order, whether in the cosmos or the ritual which reflects cosmos. Chaos is never deliberately introduced, but when it accidentally occurs (and that is the nature of chaos; planned chaos is a contradiction in terms) it must be knit into the order of the ritual. It is not sought out, but ritualists must be on guard against it. When properly handled, chaos does not impose itself on order, does not disrupt it completely. Rather, order “imposes” itself on chaos; it incorporates chaos into itself, in the process transmuting the chaos into cosmos.
The priests in ADF ritual, then, have the job of the professional priests of Rome or the Vedic Brahmans. They keep the ritual on course, they take what elements of chaos pre-sent themselves and weave them into the order of the ritual. In this way, they serve the same function in the ritual as the tree does in the cosmos – they blend chaos and cosmos together to form the living structure that is the Artus. They serve as a bridge between the models of and the models for.
- Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. tr. Willard R. Trask. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959.
- Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. NY: Basic Books, 1973.
- Lincoln, Bruce. Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.
- O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Other Peoples’ Myths. NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1988.
“Cosmos, Chaos, and the ADF Priest.” submitted by Ceisiwr Serith