The Sword of Heaven is the fascinating memoir of photojournalist Mikkel Aaland‘s involvement in a global peace project initiated by a Shinto priest. The practices and beliefs of Shinto have been a subject I’d been very curious of since I had a series of Japanese hued dreams several years ago, around the same time as I became obsessed with the writings, work and legacy of Lafcadio Hearn. Mikkel’s book took me a bit deeper into the world of Shintoism, though it isn’t primarily about the beliefs and practices of those who follow The Way of the Gods. It is more about the authors quest for his own personal peace and power as the son of an engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a facility that specialized in nuclear weapons and plutonium research. Set against the backdrop of the final days of the Cold War, with Regan’s Star Wars project looming overhead, proxy conflicts in Central America, and the Berlin Wall still dividing a nation, the tensions at play in the world are mirrored in the tensions of Mikkel’s personal life. The project took place at a time when the Doomsday Clock was ticking closer towards midnight. The sense of urgency with which Mikkel roamed the planet to place his share of the 108 broken pieces of the Sword of Heaven, each containing a Kami or “god” matches the urgency of the superpowers in their race towards mutually assured annhilation.
You could say Mikkel was raised in a bomb shelter. This isn’t far from the truth. The town of Livermore, also known as Atomic City as a producer of nuclear weapons was also a known target for the “enemies” own nukes. As such, Mikkel’s father, a Norwegian immigrant, built a bomb shelter in the front yard for the family just prior to the time of the Cuban Missile crisis, accessible via a stairway and underground hallway. This became Mikkel’s bedroom after the major threats were over (for a time). It later became the setting of a recurring nightmare that haunted the photojournalist until he had a major breakthrough with it as a part of his work with the Sword of Heaven project. This is part of what I loved about this book -it weaves together dreams, synchronicities and actual Japanese magic. That Mikkel became involved in this project through the chance meeting of someone at a San Francisco dinner party seemed to be the very hand of the Fates.
The project itself involved placing a magical sword, The Sword of Heaven, into a stone. “A Japanese Shinto priest, a survivor of Hiroshima, had a horrific vision of the end of the world, and a subsequent vision of how to save it. The priest, or sensei as he is called in Japanese, was instructed by God to break an ancient Shinto sword into 108 pieces and place the pieces in stone. Each piece, which now became a kami or god, imbued with magical powers, was then placed strategically around the world. After each placing the priest and his followers in Japan were to conduct a special ceremony to help fight the evil that was engulfing the world.” Often these pieces housing Kami were placed under water in rivers, lakes, and ocean. Sometimes in other places, such as the one buried near Trinity, New Mexico site of the first nuclear blast and birthplace of the atomic age. This placement was carried out by an American Indian. Many of the placements were carried out by volunteers other than Mikkel. In as much as he placed a number of pieces himself in Norway, Florida, Iceland, South Africa and South America, he also acted as a facilitator in getting them to other people who then were able to place them.
Mikkel traveled to Japan a number of times to meet a man named Kazz, one of other students of the Shinto priest working on placing the kami, and the Shinto priest himself. In these he was able to participate in some of their ceremonies and take some classes on various aspects of the Way of the Gods at the monastery his teacher was associated with. One of the most interesting parts of the book was about one of these ceremonies. The gathered group would begin to chant while also waving about swords and daggers in the air. Meanwhile the priest would be engaged in astral travel while fighting “bad spirits” -the energy produced by the group giving him added strength it seems. In this respect the use of the sword among the Shinto is not a far cry from the way ritual swords are used by practitioners of the Western Mystery Traditions -for exorcism, for defending the Land, for protection against those beings who would do us harm.
And while I harbor many reservations about magical work that is directly aimed at or aligned with political goals, this working had the feeling of being unconditional, of being a work in service to the planet during a time rife with danger, and initiated by people who had seen the terror of a nuclear blast. That it was further carried out by the man who grew up sleeping in a bomb shelter inside Atomic City has further implications of the Fates connecting people across and around the world