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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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“The Moods” by William Butler Yeats

Time drops in decay,
Like a candle burnt out,
And the mountains and woods
Have their day, have their day;
What one in the rout
Of the fire-born moods
Has fallen away?

Moods by nature are ephemeral. They tend to last only a short time and are generally caused by some event or thought. But Yeats compares moods to things more lasting, specifically mountains and woods, which are also temporary but endure for a long time. So what are the moods that Yeats is writing about?

Since the word “moods” is plural, it is clear he is experiencing more than one mood at the same time. Also, we are told that these moods are born from fire. An obvious mood would be love or passion, a mood clearly associated with fire. But I would also venture to say that one of the moods is associated with creative inspiration, the spark of the creative flame which, if not nurtured, quickly burns out like the candle. And I suspect there is a third mood, relating to divine inspiration or illumination. Again, this “mood” is fleeting, and usually once you realize that you are having a moment of divine connection, it immediately dissipates.

My final thought on this poem may be a bit of a stretch, but as I read it a few times, I could not help but wonder if there is also an allusion to “modes.” When read aloud with an accent, it is possible. If this is the case, then Yeats may also have been asserting that there are various modes of artistic and spiritual expression, and that each mode is also ephemeral and dependent upon the artist and the audience. At some points poetry and literature may be the dominant mode, other times painting, other times music, or film. As such, moods and modes are always changing.

Anyway, these are just my thoughts. Yeats is always challenging, and it seems the more pared down his poems are, the more you have to work to understand them. Feel free to share your thoughts on this one. Cheers!

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Folklore in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this play, and I have to say, I really liked it. It is very funny and accessible. And while I have also never seen it performed, the language is so rich that I could easily picture the scenes in my mind’s eye as they would be acted out on stage. The play is full of sexual jokes and puns, which I’m sure went over really well with audiences during Shakespeare’s time. But what interests me the most about this play is the folklore woven in to the story.

When plotting revenge on Sir John Falstaff, Mistress Page presents a folk tale about Herne the Hunter

There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

(Act IV, scene iv)

While the archetype of horned deities that roam the wooded areas are myriad and ancient, what is fascinating about this myth is that Shakespeare’s reference to Herne is the earliest known reference in existence.

In English folklore, Herne the Hunter is a ghost associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire. He is said to wear antlers upon his head, ride a horse, torment cattle, and rattle chains. The earliest mention of Herne comes from William Shakespeare’s 1597 play The Merry Wives of Windsor, and it is impossible to know how accurately or to what degree Shakespeare may have incorporated a real local legend into his work, though there have been several later attempts to connect Herne to historical figures, pagan deities, or ancient archetypes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So this begs the question: Was Shakespeare drawing on local folklore when writing this play, or did he just make up the tale of Herne to help drive the story? There is no way to know, but all mythology and folklore must begin by the telling of a story, and that’s what is really important here. It doesn’t really matter whether Shakespeare made this up, or if he heard it being told around a pub. What matters is that the tale was written down, and the myth was given birth, and it persisted. Herne may just be an artistic personification the archetypal forest god, but in the telling of the story and the acting of the play, Herne is given life and brought into existence within our collective consciousness.

The number three has been considered a mystical number for as long as humans have contemplated the magical nature of numbers, which is why Falstaff’s short passage regarding the number three caught my attention.

Prithee, no more prattling; go. I’ll hold. This is
the third time; I hope good luck lies in odd
numbers. Away I go. They say there is divinity in
odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death. Away!

(Act V, scene i)

This concept of the mystical power of 3 has become part of folk belief. The phrases are many: “Third one’s a charmer,” “Death comes in threes,” “Three strikes and you’re out.” Once a concept becomes planted in the collective consciousness, it manifests in folk sayings, as shown in the sayings concerning the number three.

Finally, no exploration of English folklore would be complete without mentioning the Fairy Folk, which Shakespeare also does in this play.

About, about;
Search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out:
Strew good luck, ouphes, on every sacred room:
That it may stand till the perpetual doom,
In state as wholesome as in state ’tis fit,
Worthy the owner, and the owner it.
The several chairs of order look you scour
With juice of balm and every precious flower:
Each fair installment, coat, and several crest,
With loyal blazon, evermore be blest!
And nightly, meadow-fairies, look you sing,
Like to the Garter’s compass, in a ring:
The expressure that it bears, green let it be,
More fertile-fresh than all the field to see;
And ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ write
In emerald tufts, flowers purple, blue and white;
Let sapphire, pearl and rich embroidery,
Buckled below fair knighthood’s bending knee:
Fairies use flowers for their charactery.
Away; disperse: but till ’tis one o’clock,
Our dance of custom round about the oak
Of Herne the Hunter, let us not forget.

(Act V, scene v)

While the fairies in this scene are just people pretending to be fairies in order to tease Falstaff, the imagery is consistent with the folklore surrounding fairies. And of particular interest is the custom of dancing around the oak tree. The idea of the oak as a sacred tree dates back to Greek mythology. It is mentioned in Celtic, Norse, Baltic, Slavic, Druid, and Wiccan mythology. It even has significance in the Bible as being the place where Jacob buries the foreign gods of his people and under which he erects a stone as the first covenant of the Lord. (Source: Wikipedia)

There is one more folk belief that is in this play that I want to mention, and it is a dark one: the “trial by fire.”

With trial-fire touch me his finger-end:
If he be chaste, the flame will back descend
And turn him to no pain; but if he start,
It is the flesh of a corrupted heart.

(Act V, scene v)

This conjures some very dark images for me. I cannot help but envision innocents accused of witchcraft or heresy tied to a stake and set a flame, as a way to test their guilt or innocence. This serves as a warning to us, that while there is much wisdom to be gleaned from folklore, we must also be vigilant and approach these tales with a critical mind.

In spite of the one dark spot, I still think this is a great and funny play. I hope to see it performed sometime in the near future.

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Thoughts on “The Hosting of the Sidhe” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.

The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

Before we can begin to understand the symbolism in this poem, we have to know the names and places mentioned by Yeats.

  • Sidhe—The Faeries, but with a more general implication of supernatural beings.
  • Knocknarea—Mountain in Sligo.
  • Clooth-na-Bare—A faery who sought death in the deepest lake in the world, which she found in Sligo; hence, also a place name.
  • Caoilte—Legendary Irish hero (companion of Oisin).
  • Niamh—Beloved of Oisin, whom she lures into the adventure described in Yeats’s long early narrative poem “The Wanderings of Oisin.” Her name means “brightness and beauty.”

(Definitions source: M.L. Rosenthal)

Rosenthal provides further information regarding the Sidhe and what they meant to Yeats in particular.

Thus the Sidhe are more than mere faeries in the ordinary sense; they are supernatural beings of a more exalted character. Yeats sometimes thinks of them as including all mythical heroes, and at other times makes them quite sinister. To be touched by them is to be set apart from other mortals, an ambivalent condition common to all who succumb to enchantment.

Clearly, this is a complex poem which contains layers of symbolism. I’ll do my best to bring some of these symbols to the surface.

The Sidhe appear to embody the mythology of Ireland, a combination of the mystical and the heroic. They are the Druids, the poets, the heroes, the supernatural beings, all combined into one host. Essentially, they are the source of inspiration for Yeats.

Knocknarea and Clooth-na-Bare are both in Sligo, so we have the lofty peak and the deepest lake, respectively, in the same location. Yeats seems to be implying that the mystical inspiration for his poetry is drawn both from searching the heavens, or the realm of the divine, as well as in exploring the depths of the waters, which symbolizes the deep wellspring of the subconscious mind. This places Ireland at a sort of crossroads, a place where the divine and the human meet, where god consciousness blends with the magical power of human consciousness.

Niamh is a little more complicated. I see three possible representations here. First, she could represent Ireland as the mother country. Second, she could symbolize the embodiment of the divine creative force, or the muse which inspires the poet to craft verse. And thirdly, I suspect there is a correlation between Niamh and Maud Gonne, Yeats’s beloved and personal inspiration. Considering that there are three possible representations embodied in Niamh, it is also possible that Yeats intended her to symbolize the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone).

I suspect that Yeats sees himself reflected in the character of Caoilte. He is an Irish hero, heeding the call of the Sidhe, lured into the adventure of creating poetry by the mythical being of Niamh. As I envision him “tossing his burning hair,” I see a symbol of the mystical poet, whose mind and thoughts are aflame with the divine fire of inspiration, burning with a passion to rekindle the creative flame that was once Ireland.

As with so many of Yeats’s poems, I suspect this one is open to other interpretations. This one is just my personal view. If you have other thoughts or ideas regarding this poem, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Thanks for stopping by, and happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. 1955: Burning Season

I have to say that I enjoy stand-alone comics much more than ongoing arcs, since they are like a short story and instantly gratifying to read. And this one is an excellent short tale that worked for me on multiple levels.

Hellboy, the professor, and Susan arrive in Florida to investigate cases of spontaneous combustion, an unusual occurrence which I personally find fascinating in a morbid kind of way.

The notion of spontaneous human combustion dates back to the eighteenth century, but there are legends going back centuries with similar features. And while in medieval times such deaths were attributed to demonic influence, more recently some have come to believe that there is a medical cause.

In trying to figure out whether the events were caused by an unquiet spirit, the group considers the suffering of the Seminole tribe.

The Seminole themselves were driven out by U.S. troops, forced to embark on the ‘Trail of Tears’ to make room for white settlers.

Having lived in Florida, I was familiar with the Seminole and aspects of their history. But the comic also mentions another indigenous tribe, the Timucua.

The original inhabitants of the region, the Timucua, may have been the first North American indians to encounter Spanish explorers when Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513. But the Timucua were wiped out by disease brought by the explorers, their numbers reduced from hundreds of thousands to a bare handful by the nineteenth century.

One of the things I love about the Hellboy series is that the writers consistently draw upon obscure historical information, legends, and mythology. So since I had not heard of this tribe, I did a quick web search to validate the existence of the tribe.

The Timucua were a Native American people who lived in Northeast and North Central Florida and southeast Georgia. They were the largest indigenous group in that area and consisted of about 35 chiefdoms, many leading thousands of people. The various groups of Timucua spoke several dialects of the Timucua language. At the time of European contact, the territory occupied by speakers of Timucuan dialects occupied about 19,200 square miles (50,000 km2), and was home to between 50,000 and 200,000 Timucuans. It stretched from the Altamaha River and Cumberland Island in present-day Georgia as far south as Lake George in central Florida, and from the Atlantic Ocean west to the Aucilla River in the Florida Panhandle, though it reached the Gulf of Mexico at no more than a couple of points.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Spoiler Alert: I have to give away the ending to discuss the last thing, so stop here if you plan on reading the comic and do want the ending spoiled.

It is discovered that the cause of the spontaneous human combustion is the cumulative anguish of all the people who suffered in that area.

The flames were unable to consume you, Hellboy, but you couldn’t hope to overcome centuries of pain. You could only acknowledge it. Remember it.

For me, this was a very powerful and symbolic image. Pain and suffering is symbolically represented as a burning within an individual, or collectively within a group or culture. Eventually the pain and suffering rises to the surface resulting in violent outbursts. We often think we can fight this type of burning rage, but we cannot. Fighting it only increases the pain and stokes the flames of hatred and anger. It is only through acknowledgement, empathy, and compassion that we can begin the healing process.

One last thing I want to say about this comic: the writing and artwork are both amazing. Even if you are not a fan of the genre, you will undoubtedly be impressed by the brilliance of the creative team reflected in these pages. I highly recommend this to all readers.

Cheers!

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The Black Monday Murders: Issue 04

blackmondaymurders_04

As I was reading this latest installment in the arc, I came upon a quote that really struck me.

The world we see is smoke… and it’s all the evidence we need to know the flames are real.

At first I thought about the nature of our perceived reality, that it might be just illusion, nothing but smoke and mirrors. There are spiritual traditions out there that posit this belief. But then I started thinking about the flames, and my interpretation of this quote broadened.

Flame is a symbol of change, of metamorphosis, of the purging of the old to make way for the new. Those of us living in a period of change are not able to see the change directly; we only see the residual effects, the smoke, letting us know that something unseen is occurring. I sense that we are in a stage of transition in our world, and that the fires of change are stoked and spreading. Everything that we see going on around us—all the crazy current events, all the powerful environmental and social upheavals—these are just the smoke signals letting us know that change is underway.

We like to think that we are powerful, that we have the ability to change the world around us and alter events. But do we really have that power? By the time we become aware of changes, they have usually already occurred. We only experience the smoke and ash of change. Sometimes we play a part, but are we conscious of that part that we play? I wonder.

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“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake: Opening the Doors of Perception

MarriageHeavenHell

This is probably my favorite work by William Blake. It is fairly long (about 15 pages), so it is too long to include in this post, but I am sure you can find digital versions online should you need. The piece is a combination of prose and poetry, so the style and tone changes throughout the text. Essentially, you have a debate between angels and devils about heaven and hell, good and evil, reason and emotion, and so forth. The key concept is that you cannot have one without the other, that contradictions are necessary for existence. As such, Blake is challenging all the established ideas of his time. Coming out of the Age of Reason, he argues the importance of creativity and emotion (embodied by the Romantic movement). Additionally, he challenges the doctrines of the church, which are represented by the passive, and asserts the importance of energy, or the passionate desires and instincts that Christian ideology seeks to suppress.

One of the key things to keep in mind when reading this text is that Hell is not inherently evil, but it is a symbol for energy, passion, emotion, and creativity. The fourth section of the text is subtitled “Proverbs of Hell” and include several pages of short proverbs intended to teach the importance of tapping into creative energy. I will include a few of my favorites to give an idea of the concepts embodied in the proverbs.

  • The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

  • He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

  • A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

  • He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.

  • No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

  • What is now proved was once only imagin’d.

  • One thought fills immensity.

  • You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

  • Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.

One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the exploration of the subconscious through the use of altered perception. Blake asserts that in our normal state of consciousness, we are unable to perceive the divine. It is only through altered consciousness that we can catch a glimpse of the divine realm.

The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”

In his famous quote regarding the doors of perception, Blake acknowledges that the use of hallucinogenic substances, such as those used by indigenous shamanic cultures, can shift one’s consciousness to the point that an individual can perceive the divine. This quote and idea would later go on to inspire Aldous Huxley and later the rock group The Doors.

I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, “The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?”

. . .

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

Blake then goes on to describe a mushroom-induced experience of what it’s like to shift perception and plunge into the subconscious realm of visions and inspiration.

So I remain’d with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak. He was suspended in a fungus, which hung with the head downward into the deep.

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swum, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; & the air was full of them, and seem’d composed of them—these are Devils, and are called Powers of the Air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? He said: “Between the black & white spiders.”

Toward the end of the text, one of the devils makes an argument about Jesus, essentially asserting that Christ was rebellious and acted from impulse and passion, and did not restrain his desires as is taught by church doctrine. The result of the devil’s argument is that the angel who was listening embraced the flame (symbol of enlightenment and passion) and became one of the devils.

The Devil answer’d: “Bray a fool in a mortar with wheat, yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him. If Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love Him in the greatest degree. Now hear how He has given His sanction to the law of ten commandments. Did He not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God; murder those who were murder’d because of Him; turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery; steal the labour of others to support Him; bear false witness when He omitted making a defence before Pilate; covet when He pray’d for His disciples, and when He bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

The text concludes with a powerful line, asserting the divinity inherent within all things.

For every thing that lives is Holy.

I hear this line echoed in Allen Ginsberg’s great poem “Howl.” And I firmly believe this. Every living thing has a spark of the divine within it, but sometimes our perception is shrouded and we cannot see it. And this is the message of Blake’s text; We must clear away the debris that clouds our vision and seek to perceive the infinite and divine essence that is all around us.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspired day.

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