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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 Unappeasable Host” by William Butler Yeats

The Danaan children laugh, in cradles of wrought gold,
And clap their hands together, and half close their eyes,
For they will ride the North when the ger-eagle flies,
With heavy whitening wings, and a heart fallen cold:
I kiss my wailing child and press it to my breast,
And hear the narrow graves calling my child and me.
Desolate winds that cry over the wandering sea;
Desolate winds that hover in the flaming West;
Desolate winds that beat the doors of Heaven, and beat
The doors of Hell and blow there many a whimpering ghost;
O heart the winds have shaken, the unappeasable host
Is comelier than candles at Mother Mary’s feet.

In this poem, Yeats expresses his inner struggle between his interest in the occult and his interest in Christianity. The Danaan children are the “children of the magical world of Faerie,” and as M. L. Rosenthal points out are considered “irresistible yet a threat to human love and security.” So the children symbolize mysticism and the occult, while Mother Mary represents Christianity.

In the poem, three of the twelve lines begin with the phrase “Desolate winds,” emphasizing the importance. Symbolically, the number three is likely meant to evoke the Christian trinity. Yeats sees Christian theology as opposed to the exploration of the psyche (symbolized by the wandering sea); as a hindrance to the human spirit returning to the Edenic state (symbolized by the flaming West – think cherubim with flaming sword at east of Eden, which would be west for those wanting to reenter); and finally as a doctrine of reward and punishment intended to keep people meek and subservient (Heaven and Hell).

Yeats knows that the host of Faerie cannot be appeased. Once a person steps onto the path of the occult, that person is on a journey that will never end. It is an all-consuming quest that will take precedence over all other aspects of a person’s life. But Yeats concedes that this is more attractive to him than following the Christian path, represented by the “candles at Mother Mary’s feet.”

One last thing I want to mention regarding this poem. I struggled a bit trying to figure out what the ger-eagle was. I’m not 100% sure, but I suspect that Yeats meant for this to be phonetic, where ger means gyre. This would then become a precursor to the imagery he would later use in “The Second Coming.” If ger does mean gyre, then Yeats is saying that the unappeasable host of Faerie will escape to the North following the apocalypse, or the great revealing of that which is hidden from our collective consciousness.

This is just my interpretation of this very difficult poem. If you have other insights into the hidden symbolism, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. 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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“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 04

I recently had a discussion with my wife regarding the founding of the United States. We came to the conclusion that, although many Americans like to think the country was founded upon the principles of freedom, it was actually commerce and enslavement that were the driving forces that led to the founding of America. With that still fresh in my mind, I came upon an interesting passage while reading this installment of Gaiman’s “American Gods” series.

The important thing to remember about American history is that it is fictional. It is a fine fiction that America was founded by pilgrims seeking the freedom to believe as they wished. In truth, the American colonies were as much as dumping ground as an escape. In the days when you could be hanged in London for the theft of twelve pennies, the Americas became a symbol of clemency, of a second chance. Transportation, it was called: for five years, for ten years, for life. You were sold to a captain and shipped to the colonies to be sold into indentured servitude–but at least you were free to make the most of your new world.

Another part of this comic really interested me was the three sisters. Gaiman based his three characters on the Slavic myth of the two sisters who watched the stars for a sign that the universe was about to end.

In Slavic mythology, the Zorja (alternately, Zora, Zarja, Zory, Zore = “dawn”; Zorza in Polish, Zara-Zaranica (Belarusian: Зара-Зараніца), Zvezda, Zwezda, Danica = “star”) are the two guardian goddesses, known as the Auroras. They guard and watch over the winged doomsday hound, Simargl, who is chained to the star Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor, the “little bear”. If the chain ever breaks, the hound will devour the constellation and the universe will end. The Zorja represent the Morning Star and the Evening Star.

The Zorja serve the sun god Dažbog, who in some myths is described as their father. Zorja Utrennjaja, the Morning Star, opens the gates to his palace every morning for the sun-chariot’s departure. At dusk, Zorja Vechernjaja—the Evening Star—closes the palace gates once more after his return.

(Source: Wikipedia)

In Gaiman’s retelling of the myth, he adds a third sister. It seems that Gaiman did this to also tie in the mythologies of the triple goddess, the three fates (Moirai), and possibly the three witches from Macbeth.

You wanted to know what I was looking at. The Big Dipper. Odin’s Wain, they call it. The Great Bear. Where we come from, we believe that it is a thing, not a god, but a bad thing, chained up in those stars. If it escapes, it will eat the whole of everything. And there are three sisters who must watch the sky, all the day, all the night. If he escapes, the thing in the stars, the world is over.

So far, I really love this series. Even though the artwork is a little weak, the quality of the writing makes up for it, and then some. I think I will have to reread the original text of American Gods at some point when this graphic series is finished.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 6: The Symbolism of the Cave

donquixote_cave

On a hero’s journey, the hero often goes through a symbolic exploration of the subconscious mind. This can be represented by the hero going into water, the underworld, or a cave. For this reason, I was not surprised when Don Quixote entered a cave and explored the abyss within, emerging with an expanded consciousness.

Before undertaking a daunting task, heroes will summon strength from an outside source. Before entering the cave, Don Quixote calls upon Dulcinea for protection and guidance upon his journey into the underworld.

“O mistress of my actions and movements, illustrious and peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, if so be the prayers and supplications of this fortunate lover can reach thy ears, by thy incomparable beauty I entreat thee to listen to them, for they but ask thee not to refuse my favour and protection now that I stand in need of them. I am about to precipitate, to sink, to plunge myself into the abyss that is here before me, only to let the world know that while thou dost favour me there is no impossibility I will not attempt and accomplish.”

(p. 716)

After Don Quixote reemerges from the cave, he relates his experience to his companions. The visions he describes are consistent with altered states of consciousness. He actually describes how he slipped into a state of reverie prior to the shift in awareness that brought on the mystical visions.

“… and as I was thus deep in thought and perplexity, suddenly and without provocation a profound sleep fell upon me, and when I least expected it, I know not how, I awoke and found myself in the midst of the most beautiful, delightful meadow that nature could produce or the most lively human imagination conceive. I opened my eyes, I rubbed them, and found I was not asleep but thoroughly awake. Nevertheless, I felt my head and breast to satisfy myself whether it was I myself who was there or some empty delusive phantom; but touch, feeling, the collected thoughts that passed through my mind, all convinced me that I was the same then and there that I am this moment. Next there presented itself to my sight a stately royal palace or castle, with walls that seemed built of clear transparent crystal; and through two great doors that opened wide therein, I saw coming forth and advancing toward me a venerable old man, clad in a long gown of mulberry-coloured serge that trailed upon the ground.”

(pp. 719 – 720)

The old man that Don Quixote encountered was Montesinos, but I could not help but seeing him as a Merlin figure. In fact, Merlin is mentioned later in the chapter as having prophesized the arrival of Don Quixote (p. 723). And the castle being made of crystal corresponds to the crystal cave of the Merlin mythology.

The last thing I want to discuss is the distortion of time associated with altered states of consciousness.

“I cannot understand, Senor Don Quixote,” remarked the cousin here, “how it is that your worship, in such a short space of time as you have been below there, could have seen so many things, and said and answered so much.”

“How long is it since I went down?” asked Don Quixote.

“Little better than an hour,” replied Sancho.

“That cannot be,” returned Don Quixote, “because night overtook me while I was there, and day came, and it was night again and day again three times; so that, by my reckoning, I have been three days in those remote regions beyond our ken.”

“My master must be right,” replied Sancho, “for as everything that has happened to him is by enchantment, maybe what seems to us an hour would seem three days and nights there.”

(p. 725)

In addition to the distortion of time, there is some number mysticism woven in here. We have three days existing within one hour, or three comprising the one. I cannot help but wonder if this is a reference to the trinity forming the godhead (father, son, holy ghost), or the mind/body/spirit trinity within a human being. Additionally, it could be symbolic of the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone). Regardless, we have a situation where the hero travels to the underworld, encounters a mystical being, experiences time distortion, and is presented with the number three as being connected to the mystical experience.

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“Who Goes With Fergus” by William Butler Yeats

irishwoods

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.

I read this poem after doing morning meditation, and it really spoke to me.

To understand this poem, you first need to know what Fergus symbolized for Yeats. According to M.L. Rosenthal, Yeats called Fergus the “poet of the Red Branch cycle, as Oisin was of the Fenian cycle of mythical tales of ancient Ireland.” So essentially, Fergus represents the archetype of the mystical poet who gives up pursuit of the worldly to seek the spiritual realms.

In this poem, Yeats asks the people of Ireland, who will follow the path that Fergus took, to turn away from the hopes and fears of daily life and pursue the mystic, which is symbolized by the woods, the sea, and the wandering stars. It is worth noting that Yeats uses three metaphors to describe the mystical realm. I believe this is intentional, evoking the trinity as well as the kabbalistic crown which represents the godhead. In kabbalah, the crown of the Tree of Life is comprised of three sephirot: Keter, Binah, and Chokhmah. Combined, these three symbolize the godhead from which all existence is manifested.

I could not help but wonder if Yeats was writing about himself, seeing himself as the one who is going forth with Fergus to explore the “shadows of the wood.” I suspect that he did see himself in this role, but that he was also reaching out to others to join him on this path, essentially saying “I am going with Fergus to explore the mysteries of the divine. Who else is willing to join me on this quest?” I for one am glad that Yeats extended this offer.

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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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