Tag Archives: elements

Occult Symbolism in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats

Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

There is a lot of mystical symbolism woven into this poem, so it seems that the best way to approach it is to start by looking at the overarching symbolism, and then narrow down and focus on each of the three stanzas.

One must assume that the structure of the poem is symbolic. Three is a mystical number and correlates to the Trinity; mind-body-spirit; Triple Goddess; birth-life-death; just to point out a few. Yeats would certainly have been aware of the importance of the number three when he was composing this poem. Now, something else that we need to keep in mind is that the poem also makes references to the four magical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. So because the poem is structured in three parts and incorporates the four elements, we can assume that Yeats’ intention was that the poem work as a magical invocation of sorts.

Let us examine each stanza more closely.

At the beginning of the first stanza, the wanderer describes himself entering a hazel wood. Hazel is considered to be “the tree of wisdom and learning” for Celts and Druids, and “adds its strength to the bright fire burning.” It was considered ideal for enlisting the aid of fairies; gaining knowledge, wisdom, and poetic inspiration; and for “for making all purpose magickal wands.” (Source) So the fire in his head is either a burning for knowledge, poetic inspiration, or communication with the fairy realm (or possibly all three). He then creates a wand from a piece of hazel wood. It is important to note that Yeats chooses the word “wand” as opposed to “rod.” Based on the rhyme scheme, he could have used either word, so it is clear he wanted to emphasize the fact that a wand is a mystical tool.

The next thing to point out in the first stanza is the imagery of the moth. The moth is a symbol of transformation, and foreshadows an upcoming transformation within the poem.

At the end of the first stanza, the wanderer recounts drawing a silver trout from the stream. The stream represents the subconscious mind of the speaker, so he has used the wand, thread, and berry to draw something from the deeper recesses of the psyche.

The second stanza is one of transformation, hinted at by the moth in the previous stanza. The fish, which is associated with water (element 1) is placed onto the earth (element 2) as fire is stoked (element 3) and then transforms into a fairy who disappears into the air (element 4). There is almost a sense of alchemy here, transformative magick initiated through the use of elements. What is important to note is that the trout does not transform on its own. It is pulled from the water, into the air, placed on the earth, beside a flame. The wanderer appears to have had intent to initiate this metamorphosis.

In the final stanza, we hear from the wanderer in his present state. The first two stanzas were memories. Here he is old and seems to be nearing the end of his journey. What is key to this stanza are the last two lines. The goal of the wanderer is to reconnect with the fairy and then take of two apples: a silver apple associated with the Moon and a golden apple associated with the Sun. Yeats seems to be drawing on Judeo-Christian symbolism, of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and also from the Tree of Life, respectively. But also, there is Celtic and alchemical symbolism associated with the image of the apples.

In Celtic legends apples appear as the fruit of the Otherworld. More specifically, they are associated with the mythical Avalon, the ‘Island of Apples’. The otherworldly apple tree was also said to have been the source of the Silver Bough. In Norse tradition the tree bearing the golden apples of immortality was protected by the goddess Idun, whence they were stolen by Loki. The gods began to age, but they recovered the apples just before they were overcome by senility and death. In alchemy, when the alchemist is represented eating an apple at the end of the Great Work, he enjoys the fruit of immortality.

(Source)

So the ancient wanderer in Yeats’ poem is one who is seeking knowledge and immortality, through the aid of otherworldly entities, represented by the “glimmering girl / With apple blossom in her hair.” And he is drawing on all the occult knowledge and tools available to him in order to attain his goal.

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Monstress: Issue #14

Yet another stunningly beautiful and eloquently composed installment in this series. I know I have written before about the quality of the writing and artwork that graces these pages, so for this post, I just want to share a couple passages that I found particularly inspiring.

“The ancients, using their magic — and their sway over humans — constructed cities of such magnificence that they have never been equaled. Magic allowed them to control the elements, to defy death, and to peer into the labyrinths of time. Infinitely brilliant — and just as decadent. But the ancients, for all the blessings bestowed upon them, were as deeply flawed as the humans they enslaved — and the same ambitions that elevated them to Olympian heights ended up tearing them apart.”

“What happened once, will happen again… but in a different form. To become a fortune-teller, one needs only to study history.”

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 12” by Lao Tzu

Chinese5

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours cloy the palate.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Rare goods tempt men to do wrong.

Therefore, the Sage takes care of the belly, not the eye.
He prefers what is within to what is without.

This is one of those times that I am grateful for the internet. When I read this passage, the general theme was obvious enough—do not focus all your energy on material gains, but instead, seek within for spiritual treasures. But I knew I was missing something critical and that something must be associated with the number five, which is echoed in the first three lines. From my western perspective, I could not think of any significance that the number five would have in the context of this passage. So I resorted to Google.

I learned that in Chinese thought, the number five is significant because the Chinese believe there are five elements: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, and Metal. From my western perspective, I have always considered there to be four elements: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire. Now the meaning of the first few lines made sense. It is the distraction of the elements to our physical senses that draws our focus away from the internal and towards the external.

This is an example of how ideas and symbols can be interpreted differently based upon the cultural context. Whenever we attempt to uncover the meaning of something, we should always consider the context in which it was created.

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“To the Muses” by William Blake

NineMuses

Whether on Ida’s shady brow,
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceas’d;

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air,
Where the melodious winds have birth;

Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea
Wand’ring in many a coral grove,
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry!

How have you left the ancient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forc’d, the notes are few!

In this poem, Blake contemplates the state of the poetic arts in England during his time. He expresses the belief that the art was lacking, that the poetic genius manifest in the past was lost during his time.

In the opening line, he mentions “Ida’s shady brow.” This is an allusion to Homer. Mount Ida was near Troy and supposedly from there the gods watched the Trojan War. Blake appears to be setting up a contrast between the inspiration that fostered Homer’s work and the perceived lack of poetic inspiration that plagued England in the late 18th century.

Blake evokes the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire (fire being symbolized by the sun). He mentions the elements before he mentions the nine muses. It gives the poem the feel of a mystical rite or incantation, where Blake is drawing energy from the elements in order to summon the muses.

I cannot help but wonder if Blake is also criticizing himself here. Since this poem was composed early in his life, he may have been struggling to find his own personal muse and feeling frustrated that he was not getting the inspiration of a Homer or a Shakespeare. If this was indeed the case, then I would say his incantation worked. The muses certainly inspired him throughout his life.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VIII – The Songs of the Harper

GreekHarp

In this book, Alkinoos holds a feast and a competition in honor of his still unknown guest, Odysseus. During the feast, Demodokos, a blind bard, sings songs which include tales of what happened to Odysseus, which stir deep and painful emotions within Odysseus as he listens.

So as I mentioned in my last three posts, each of the previous three books dealt with the theme of resurrection and rebirth associated with an element. In Book V, Odysseus is reborn through the element of earth; in Book VI he is reborn through water; and in Book VII he is reborn through fire. Now, to complete the cycles of rebirth, in this episode Odysseus experiences resurrection through the element of air.

The element of air is symbolized through the breath of the bard, Demodokos. As the bard sings the tales of Odysseus, his breath gives life to Odysseus’ past, essentially providing immortality through the art of poetry.

The following passage is worth a closer reading because it contains the key to understanding the importance of the bard’s voice in regard to the rebirth through air.

At the serene king’s word, a squire ran
to bring the polished harp out of the palace,
and place was given to nine referees—
peers of the realm, masters of ceremony—
who cleared a space and smoothed a dancing floor.
The squire brought down, and gave Demodokos,
the clear-toned harp; and centering on the minstrel
magical young dancers formed a circle
with a light beat, and stamp of feet. Beholding,
Odysseus marveled at the flashing ring.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 132)

The first thing to notice is that this takes place in a circle, which is a symbol of rebirth and continuity. The bard is placed in the center, signifying the central importance of the singer in the divine cycle. The dancers, representing action and emanation, circle around the source of the divine breath. It is also important to note that we again see the appearance of the number nine, the importance of which was established in Book III where the number nine symbolizes the connection between the earthly and the divine.

I want to point out that Demodokos sings three times. There is symbolic significance to this, since the number three represents, among other things, the three stages of life: birth, growth, death. After that, the cycle repeats itself with rebirth.

When we get to the third song, it is Odysseus who requests the theme, which is about how he took the lead in the attack from within the wooden horse at Troy.

The minstrel stirred, murmuring to the god, and soon
clear words and notes came one by one, a vision
of the Akhaians in their graceful ships
drawing away from shore: the torches flung
and shelters flaring: Argive soldiers crouched
in the close dark around Odysseus: and
the horse, tall on the assembly ground of Troy.

(ibid: p. 140)

Here the breath of the poet resurrects Odysseus as the words inspire visions. Words have the power to create, and many creation myths use breath or words as a symbol for the source of divine creation. For me, it makes sense that this element should be employed as the fourth level of rebirth for Odysseus.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and have a blessed day!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VII – Gardens and Firelight

Phoenix

In this book, Athena disguises herself as a young girl and guides Odysseus to the palace of Alkinoos, Nausicaa’s father and king of the Phaeacians. Odysseus is awestruck by the splendor of the palace. When Odysseus meets the king and his wife Arete, Alkinoos questions whether Odysseus is a god, to which he replies that he is mortal. Odysseus then tells the story of how he came to Phaeacia while withholding his true identity. Alkinoos agrees to help Odysseus return home and also offers Odysseus Nausicaa’s hand in marriage.

This is a fairly short book, and much of it is description of the palace and gardens, and Odysseus recounting his journey from Calypso’s island. One passage stood out for me, though.

He moved, then, toward the fire, and sat him down
amid the ashes. No one stirred or spoke
until Ekhineos broke the spell—an old man
eldest of the Phaiakians, an oracle,
versed in the laws and manners of old time.
He rose among them now and spoke kindly:

“Alkinoos, this will not pass for courtesy:
a guest abased in ashes at our hearth?
Everyone here awaits your word; so come, then,
lift the man up; give him a seat of honor,
a silver-studded chair. Then tell the stewards
we’ll have another wine bowl for libation
to Zeus, lord of the lightening—advocate
of honorable petitioners. And supper
may be supplied our friend by the larder mistress.”

Alkinoos, calm in power, heard him out,
then took the great adventurer by the hand
and led him from the fire. Nearest his throne
the son whom he loved best, Laodamas,
had long held place; now the king bade him rise
and gave the shining chair to Lord Odysseus.

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 115 – 116)

So in this section, we have Odysseus placing himself by the fire and sitting in the ashes. He is then raised from the ashes and given a seat of honor beside the king’s throne. I found this to be a symbolic association between Odysseus and the Phoenix. The Phoenix is one of the most recognizable symbols of rebirth and regeneration, dying in fire and then resurrecting from the ashes. But what I find the most interesting about this is that Odysseus seems to be going through a series of rebirths, with each one being associated with a different element. So in Book V, Odysseus experiences a rebirth through the element of earth, as he is buried beneath the leaves. In Book VI, he is reborn again and this time the rebirth is associated with the element of water, as he is cleansed and purified in the river. Now, in Book VII, we see Odysseus reborn through the element of fire. Homer draws on the various symbols of resurrection, connects them to the elements, then weaves them all together into the hero myth. In my opinion, this is nothing short of poetic genius.

I really have nothing else to say about this book. I’m still in awe. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and comments. Cheers!

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