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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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“Gypsies on the Road” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Sir Alfred Munnings

Painting by Sir Alfred Munnings

The dark-eyed ancient tribe that never rests
Took up the age-old journey yesterday,
The young on the women’s backs, and—should they cry—
Treasure awaits them at the hanging breasts.

On foot, the men, whose shouldered weapons gleam,
Trudge by the waggons where their families lie,
Their gaze is heavy as the scan the sky
With nameless shadows of a distant dream.

The cricket, watching from its sandy bower,
Greets their approach with loudest eloquence;
Cybele makes earth greener for their sake;

The rock becomes a spring, the deserts flower
Before these wanderers, as they march to take
The constant empire of the unknown hence.

(Translation by Naomi Lewis)

I really enjoyed this poem and find it to be very relevant to events currently unfolding within our world. Basically, Baudelaire is establishing a correlation between the gypsies of his time and the archetype of the Wandering Jew, roaming the desert in search of the Promised Land. But I cannot help but see the plights of Syrian refugees or Mexican immigrants reflected in this sonnet. These people pack up their families and what few possessions they can carry, and set out in search of a better life. I try to imagine the desperation that brings people to this point, and it is difficult for me to grasp. Thankfully, I have not had to experience that level of despair in my life.

I really don’t have anything else to say about this poem. It seems pretty clear and unambiguous to me, but if you see something that I missed, feel free to comment in the section below.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XIV – Hospitality in the Forest

Odysseus and Eumaeus

Odysseus and Eumaeus

In this episode, Odysseus is given shelter in the hut of Eumaeus, his swineherd. Since Odysseus is disguised, Eumaeus does not recognize him, but invites him in as courtesy to a wanderer and offers Odysseus food and drink. Odysseus lies about where he is from and assures Eumaeus that his master is still alive and will return soon.

This book presents Odysseus more as the archetype of the wanderer, although, he still demonstrates a bit of the trickster through his lies and stories.

Come to the cabin. You’re a wanderer too.
You must eat something, drink some wine, and tell me
where you are from and the hard times you’ve seen.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 248)

After the meal, Odysseus and the swineherd begin talking. Eumaeus expresses his belief that all wanderers are also liars.

Wandering men tell lies for a night’s lodging,
for fresh clothing; truth really doesn’t interest them.
Every time a traveller comes ashore
he has to tell my mistress his pretty tale,

(ibid: p. 251)

The connection between the wanderer and the trickster archetypes is established. Odysseus embodies both, but I wonder if the implication here is that both archetypes are intrinsically connected. It is almost as if they are two aspects of the same. The trickster, who revels in deceit and trickery, must of necessity travel constantly in search of new dupes. Likewise, the constant wanderer must always be ready to use his wit and guile in order to secure what is needed and manipulate individuals into providing shelter and provisions.

One of my favorite quotes from this episode is when the swineherd confronts Odysseus and asks him why he is a liar.

That tale
about Odysseus, though, you might have spared me;
you will not make me believe that.
Why must you lie, being the man you are,
and all for nothing?

(ibid: p. 258)

Since Odysseus is an incarnation of the trickster, he cannot help but lie. It is part of his nature. Even though he will not gain anything—the swineherd has already given him food and shelter—Odysseus as the trickster must still lie and make up stories, for no reason but because he can.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book I – A Goddess Intervenes

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

In this opening section of the Odyssey, the goddess Athena petitions Zeus for permission to intervene on Odysseus’ behalf and is granted permission to go to Ithaca to speak with Telemachus, Odysseus’s son. It has been ten years since the Trojan War ended and Odysseus has yet to return. As a result, suitors seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage are gathering and taking advantage of the estate. Athena meets with Telemachus in the form on Mentes, a friend of Odysseus, and advises him on how to deal with the suitors. She then instructs him to journey to Pylos and Sparta to inquire after his father.

For this post, I am going to focus on the sea as a metaphor for the subconscious.

When Athena is petitioning Zeus, she mentions Odysseus’ captivity on Calypso’s island. She states that Calypso is Altas’ daughter and that Atlas is one who knows all the depths of the seas.

But my own heart is broken for Odysseus,
the master mind of war, so long a castaway
upon an island in the running sea;
a wooded island, in the sea’s middle,
and there’s a goddess in the place, the daughter
of one whose baleful mind knows all the deeps
of the blue sea—Atlas, who holds the columns
that bear from land the great thrust of the sky.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 3)

What is implied here is that Atlas understands the deeper aspects of the collective unconscious. That is what the sea symbolizes here. This collective unconscious is the realm of archetypes. And Odysseus is one of the archetypes that exist in this realm. So in the following passage, where Athena is conversing with Telemachus and she states that “never in this world is Odysseus dead,” she is implying that he is one of the eternal archetypes.

But never in this world is Odysseus dead—
only detained somewhere on the wide sea,
upon some island, with wild islanders;
savages, they must be, to hold him captive.
Well, I will forecast for you, as the gods
put the strong feeling in me—I see it all,
and I’m no prophet, no adept in bird-signs.
He will not, now, be long away from Ithaka,
his father’s dear land; though he be in chains
he’ll scheme a way to come; he can do anything.

(ibid: p. 7)

It is important to note that Athena asserts that Odysseus will “scheme a way to come.” He is already being cast as the Trickster archetype; although, he is also an incarnation of the Wanderer archetype.

As Athena’s meeting with Telemachus nears its end, Telemachus begins to suspect the divine nature of the being who is with him. He acknowledges that she must return to the sea, of the realm of consciousness where gods and archetypes exist, but offers her a gift before she leaves.

“Friend, you have done me
kindness, like a father to his son,
and I shall not forget your counsel ever.
You must get back to sea, I know, but come
take a hot bath, and rest; accept a gift
to make your heart lift up when you embark—
some precious thing, and beautiful, from me,
a keepsake, such as dear friends give their friends.”

(ibid: p. 11)

There are many other interesting aspects about this opening book, but to quote a famous writer, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” so I will just mention a couple more things that caught my attention. First, I was fascinated by the passage that discussed the responsibility of the son to avenge the father, whether directly or through guile. It made me think a lot about the connection between characters like Telemachus, Orestes, and Hamlet. Lastly, I loved the image of the poet as a weaver of spells. I have always considered poetry to be a form of evocative magic, conjuring through the use of words and cadence.

Phêmios, other spells you know, high deeds
of gods and heroes, as the poets tell them;

(ibid: p. 12)

If you are reading along, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please feel free to post below and we can engage in a conversation.

Read on!!

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