Awen and Hermeticism

In this post I would like to lay out and juxtapose some terms from hermeticism and from contemporary Druidry. You can think of this as one big case study example of how companion planting can work. So there are two terms I want to lay out, and I apologize in advance, because they’re the most complex topics in the two traditions I’m writing about here. They are Awen and Nous.

The previous posts are here: one, two, and three, and four.

Nous

Nous is a thing in the earliest Hermetic texts. I’d like first to present a few selections from the Definitions from Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, which, in my edition, is translated into English by Clement Salaman, et al.

The world (is) intelligible and God (is) Nous; (he is) the truly uncreated, the intelligible; by essence, the uncreated and the ineffable, the intelligible good.

(DH 1.4)

Nous is the invisible good; soul (is) a necessary movement adjusted to every (kind of) body.

(DH 2.1)

Heaven is an eternal body, an immutable body, unalterable and mixed up out of soul and Nous.

(DH 2.2)

And among the living (beings), some are immortal and animated, some have Nous, soul and spirit, some (have) only spirit […] For life can acquire consistency without spirit, Nous, soul, and immortality, but all of the others without life cannot possibly exist.

(DH 4.2)

So, in order, Nous is God, but not only God. It is good, invisible, and necessary. It fits with all bodies. Heaven is “mixed up” of soul and Nous. Some living things have Nous but not all. Many have soul and life but not Nous. Nous and soul are insupportable without life, though – it’s a prerequisite for Nous and soul being present.

If you’re left wondering what Nous is, still, you are not alone! It’s probably one of the most often debated topics within the study of Hermeticism, at least if the conversations in the HHoA server are anything to go by! I don’t want to try to give you a hot take about Nous, but just to get it into focus enough to triangulate between it and this other concept. So, we know that Nous is not soul. But it is similar to soul. Nous is unchanging, and in some way God, like big G, Big Boss God. Nous can be in all living things, but is not necessarily in all living things. It is also necessary, particularly to the work of the Hermetic practitioner. Some people translate it as knowledge or wisdom or some similar term. Some people prefer to leave it untranslated, as it’s not clear entirely what it meant to begin with.

I am by no means saying that Nous is the same thing as Awen, but I think they are worth juxtaposing.

Awen

Awen is a term from contemporary Druidry. It appears in medieval Welsh texts, such as the Llyvyr Taliessin. I actually wrote about it briefly in the past. Here’s one of the verses from that collection:

Fine is the rampart’s strength,
Fine is the presence of a great man,
Fine’s a drink horn passing round.
Noble are cattle at noon,
Noble is truth when it shines,
More noble when it speaks.
Nobly it came from the cauldron,
From the Trinity’s awen.
I have been a torqued lord
Drinking horn in hand.
No poet deserves a prize
Who doesn’t preserve my words.
My brilliant, prize-winning song –
My fluent, bold awen.

(The Book of Taliesin, Lewis & Williams, trans. p. 73)

Awen appears to be a kind of poetic power or flow. It comes from a cauldron, a potent brew that makes poets prize-winners. Awen was taken as the flowing power of an inspired poet as well as the inspiration that thus blew threw them.

The awen is one of the keys of contemporary Druidry. Here are a few passages from an essay on awen by Philip Carr-Gomm, former Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids:

Learning how to be open to Awen is like learning how to open a window. It requires nothing more than just leaning forwards, lifting the catch, and opening the window wide. Then the wind and the sunshine, the fresh air, the rain, the birdsong that comes drifting in – all these things – do the work. And you just settle back and let go, and allow the wind to blow through you, the sunshine to flood through you. To open to Awen, all you have to do is stand your ground and get out of the way.

Awen sometimes seems to flow down into you – it’s as if the inspiration starts off up there, out there. But other times it seems to flow up from deep down within you, deep down from a place beyond you, deeper than you…

There is a difference between the inspiration of Awen – that comes to us in flashes, waves, streams of clarity, insight and creativity – and the energy of Nwyfre. Nwyfre is the life-force that flows through our bodies, giving us health and vitality. Nwyfre is like the prana of yoga, or the Chi’ of the Taoists. Ideally, Nwyfre flows strongly through us at all times. Awen, however, visits us like a cool breeze, a ray of sunshine, the gift of rain, which arrives as a blessing, and then leaves us again. Constancy is not a characteristic of Awen – by its nature it comes and goes. But it is our job to encourage it to come more often – to at least try to meet it half-way.

So awen is a form of inspiration, something we touch – or are touched by – rather than something we have intrinsically. I left the full text of the digression into nwyfre because, like life, it is not awen but is a necessary part of living things. As in the hermetic definitions above, nwyfre is the prerequisite for the other things to be present. It’s life itself. Awen, though, may or may not be present.

Analogous Spirit

I am not arguing that “awen and nous are really the same thing oh em gee.” Hell, maybe they are, I don’t know. But my intention here is to juxtapose them and see how we can use each to understand the other. So, for example, nous is mysterious and somewhat ineffable, just like the God associated with it. But awen is, while a little mysterious and a little ineffable, much more common in our lives. While I don’t like it when people rely on “inspiration” to do creative work – research shows your audience can’t tell the difference between when you felt inspired on a Saturday afternoon and when you hated every minute of writing Monday morning – we both need and frequently come in contact with “inspiration.” It’s not unreasonable to understand nous in the light of awen: as a kind of brush with the divine. One of the goals of hermeticism is to attain nous, or to cultivate it and keep it around if you’ve already got it. And while the druidic awen comes and goes — any attempt to shackle a muse ends badly, just ask that guy from the old Sandman comic – druidic practice does focus on a lot on cultivating the ability to be open to awen even when the situation is not ideal.

And equally, nous can teach us a lot about awen. Awen is often perceived as this rush of force, this sort of thing that will manifest in one person as a passion for sculpture and in another as a passion for poetry. Well, if, like nous, it accompanies the soul but is not the same as it, of course it would be different. Each interface between human and awen, like between human and nous, is a continuum between the same force on one side and a multitude of different surfaces on the other (the individual humans).

Wrap Up

If you, like me, are a para-hermeticist, it may have been difficult to work The One, the Builder, and Nous into your worldview. It’s my claim here that thinking with things like Awen and Nwyfre can ease the burden, so to speak, sort of lighting the scene in a different way so it fits in a comedy instead of a thriller. The language of something like the Corpus Hermeticum is very focused on a kind of almost-but-not-quite monotheistic maker of all, but it is aimed at contacting Nous and experiencing the One. And Awen can be a powerful force for just such an experience.

I don’t have any hard and fast conclusions here. I’m not trying to say one thing is the other, only that they are sort of analogous within different traditions and can bear some juxtaposition in pursuit of the “companion planting” I’ve been going on about for so long now.

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