Saturday, October 24, 2009

Finding religion in Asdonk

Walking in silence on a winding road towards a site that was, just possibly, a sacred site in the distant past, so as to resacralize it. That's what I did last Saturday, in pleasant and wholesome company.

Asdonk is a hamlet on the northern rim of the municipality of Diest, in the borderland of the Flemish geographical regions of de Kempen (Taxandria), traditionally an area of sandy heath and forest, thinly populated and poor; and the rich agricultural Hageland, "Hedge land", named after the hedges that used to protect the grapevines during warmer centuries when Brabant had a pioneering wine industry. Ernest Claes, a local heimat writer who grew up in a house on the (then) wasteland between the nearby Kempen village of Averbode and the Hageland village of Zichem, described how he found himself influenced by two mentalities: "the merry Hagelander and the introspective Kempenaar". In that respect, Asdonk is on the side of the introspective type.

Asdonk is one place where the traditional heath/forest character of the region has been preserved. The name is traceable to the age of Charlemagne, 9th century, when a commander of military scouts was rewarded for his services with a fief including Asdonk. The "donk" in the name means a marshy depression in the landscape, a moor, and the islands rising up from it. The word is related to donker, German dunkel, "dark", and to dungeon. And effectively, the area is partly a low-lying wetland with islands and makeshift bridges, often haze-covered. Misty, mystical, mysterious... The component "as" is a longer story. Dutch has a word as (<ahs) meaning "axis", which doesn't seem related. There is a homographous word as (<asch) means "ashes", also unlikely though it would add over-emphatically to the site's connotation of darkness. Also, there was an old homophonous form as, now normally es (<asch), meaning the "ash" tree. Ash trees are not in evidence there in any exceptional quantity. At any rate, the spelling "as" indicates a recent coinage, quod non. We need an old form "as", and the one that comes to mind is the Roman name for the smallest weight/monetary unit. Relevance?

But what if it came from "ase", a pre-Christian Germanic term for "a god"? The suggestion is made by neo-Pagan mastermind Stefan Van den Eynde, if only playfully. Note that the ace in the deck of cards, Dutch "aas", is both the lowest (as 1) and the highest value in the series: lowest like the Roman "as", highest like the Germanic "ase". A modest indication for a link between Asdonk and the old gods is this. One of the old gods, Wodan/Odin, was imagined as presiding over the Wild Hunt, conducted by the Wild Horde, originally a band of young warriors living on the outskirts of society, who had a free run in their god's festive season, the dark second half of autumn. The children playing "trick or treat" during Halloween re-enact these hordesmen on their wild hunt. Now, in Asdonk there happens to be a lane called Jachtdreef, "Hunting Lane", yet the oldest records don't show it to be a location of actual hunting. Aha, wouldn't that be a clue to an Odinist tradition of the Wild Hunt at the site? No proof for that, but let's take heart as long as no one has disproven it either.

Blackness is written all over Asdonk, where one rivulet is called the Black Brook, another the Black Water, while the nearby river's name Demer seems to be related to Latin temere, Sanskrit tamas, all meaning "dark". Usually heathen sacred sites are on hilltops, such as the christianized ones nearby: the abbey of Averbode with its Mary Forest, and the Basilica of Scherpenheuvel, built around a sacred tree on a hill. What could be sacred about a moor?

One religious ceremony that our ancestors, including the much-venerated Druids, sometimes practised, was human sacrifice. This could be conducted by drowning the victim in a swamp. Indeed, the best-preserved human bodies from ancient Northwestern Europe are the peat-moor corpses, sacrificial victims found in swamps. Maybe some dredging in Asdonk could yield interesting remains. Then again, there may be nothing to this at all.

What I like about Stefaan's view of religion is that he doesn't try to revive corpses of gods, ancient beliefs which mostly are known only in distorted and incomplete form. He starts from reality, and from modern man. We have an inborn sense of the sacred as much as our ancestors did. We only need to remove the cobwebs that have covered this sensitivity in years of not paying attention.

Either way, the landscape has a powerful feel to it. Especially for Flemish city-dwellers who don't know of any location where you can get away from the sight of houses and the sound of automobiles. Last Saturday, the temperature was pleasant for an autumnal afternoon, greyish sky, windy with an occasional sizzle of raindrops but over-all just dry. In the outside world, it was the last day of daylight-saving time, the eve of the official winter time, which must have been the EU bureaucracy's way of adding to the seasonal atmosphere.

We started out on a two-hours' pilgrimage, the fifth that Stefaan has been conducting annually with the purpose of sacralizing or resacralizing this piece of space, charging it with human attunement to the cosmos. After all the philosophers' debates on the "disenchantment" of the world, could it be time to fill the world with spirit once more? We walked at a good pace, which towards the end made it hard for me to keep up, damaged creature that I am. However, the walk was punctured by six stops, where uplifting poems were read out. Otherwise we observed strict silence. That in itself is enough to turn a walk into a pilgrimage.

At one point, a narrow bridge without hand support across the Black Brook was designated the bridge to the world beyond. Like the dying on their final journey, we held a money coin (an as...) handy to pay the ferryman, and threw it in the water. Dying to be reborn, and all that.

When our guide announced we were going to cross yet another bridge, now to the deathless divine world, the one thing lying across the water that caught my eye was a storm-felled tree. Was that dying Tree of Life the bridge to the hall of the gods? Well, no, a bit further on a proper bridge was waiting, modern pilgrimages assure the pilgrim's comfort. On the island, on a hillock, we were awaited by Stefaan's wife Heidi, who had prepared a fire-pot. Everyone was invited to throw some herbs and resin into the fire, a more civilized sacrifice than the peat-moor corpses of yore.

There were, if I recall well, sixteen of us. Most were members of a neo-Pagan society on which I will write later this week. At the last station of the walk, its new chairman ritually opened the group's working year and gave a brief speech. Brief means two or three sentences, he's called Herman the Taciturn for a reason.

I was apprehensive there was going to be an invocation of some gods -- what else would you expect of Pagan revivalists? But no god or similar creature (oops, Creator) was mentioned. The universe is enough. It means something to us moderns, whereas the gods, of any pantheon, are comic characters to us, at best name-tags for the different cornerstones of the cosmos. Just as the old gods didn't need to be depicted, today they don't need to be named. Now that Christians rarely take God seriously anymore ("God, if You exist, save my soul, if I have one"), even the Pagans are doing without Him/them.

The old religion was not centred on gods or beliefs, but on practices. One traditional practice that we found easy and pleasant to uphold, is the collective drink. The horn was passed around and from it we all drank mead, which I discovered to be heart-warming.

Though I didn't notice it at the time, I was told later that the roots of the tree under which we congregated, had the shape of a horseshoe. No doubt the footprint of Wodan's race-horse Sleipnir. This reminds me that along the way we had also passed a crossing of five paths, which in mystic Brittany they call a "Druid's foot". More proof of a higher presence in the landscape, that. All in Asdonk.

If nothing else, the physical exertion and the forest's oxygen had certainly made the walk worth my while. And the friendship. I always associated silence with the Orient, yoga ashrams have "silent retreats"; but getting together with fellow-countrymen in silence creates a sense of communion as well, as a welcome side-effect. As for Asdonk's degree of sacredness, it must have increased somewhat that afternoon, but I am not equipped with the antennae needed to perceive such things with any exactitude.

After bowing out to the trees, we walked most ordinarily, no longer with sealed lips, to a tavern on the forestside. I lagged behind, and suddenly found myself in the company of a charming lady coming up from another forest path. She seemed to be more familiar with the place. Was she part of the territory? After all, an Enchanted (or Re-Enchanted) Forest needs its own Lady of the Lake. No, she was simply going back to her car after a stroll in Asdonk. Not a pilgrimage, just a pleasant afternoon in the greenery. We exchanged a few comments, nothing profound. Or did she keep her lips sealed on the deeper secrets that Asdonk divulges only to its persistent lovers, those who return there once and twice and thrice over?

P.S.: Google for "Asdonk wandeling" and the local tourism service will explain to you how you too can come and respectfully contribute to the Asdonk spirit.


Shankara said...
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Naras said...

I think Gnosticism had a thriving underground presence in Europe in the last thousand years. Hear recently that there is a fairly popular movement in Greece to bring back the old gods, to the consternation of the orthodox Church. In scandinavia the people still are named after Norse gods like Thor, Freia, Odin etc. I don't know if Koenraad is a christain name!

Unknown said...

Dear Dr.Elst,
I would like your views on the possibility of connection between ancient roman concept of "Pontifex" and Jains religious concept of "Tirthamkar".Both of these entities have similiar role in that pontifex means bridge builder across river tiber while tirthamkar means river forder in samskrit.This concept is not to be found anywhere else in ancient literature. Also,Jaina claims their practices are more ancient than vedic rituals.Do you think Jaina beliefs have origin outside India in ancient Italy.