The wood so softly singing
In a language strange to hear
And the song it sings will find you
As the twilight draws you near


Symbols and Faery

Here's another archive item from the Pagan Movement Ethos Group. 
This is part of the same string of contributions from Tony Kelly as the '4-value logic' piece in the previous post.

I want to talk about symbols and our use of them.  A long time ago - and I can't remember how long, but it might have been a century - a photograph was published showing a group of fairies dancing in a ring about a girl's head.  This picture, known as The Cottingley Fairies' became famous, and while fraud has all along been suspected, the girl herself maintained her honesty to the last and the picture remained a mystery.  Since the time when that picture was taken, optical methods have developed considerably so that it's now possible to display clearly detail which might have been quite invisible to the eye.  Well, someone had the idea of subjecting the photograph of the Cottingley Fairies to modern optical methods and, as the experiment was reported in New Scientist', the result, with enhanced contrast, showed that the fairies' were supported on a string.  So it was a fraud after all.  And that, many would say, should be the end of the matter.  But a week or two later in the correspondence columns of New Scientist' (which are not noted for their lack of humour) there was a letter in which it was said: "... it was, of course, a fairy string..."  Now that was important, though I doubt whether the writer of the letter knew it, for it's the faery hosts themselves who delude us into believing in them while they don't themselves exist.

   There is indeed no room for them in a world bounded by Aristotelian (that is, ordinary') logic where the only judgements are true' or false' since Faery is no more false than it is true, and if we aproach with our choices limited to belief' or disbelief' the faery hosts will pass unnoticed, for the mesh of such a sieve is too coarse.  And the open mind, the best of all containers for new knowledge, just so long as it remains open, is neither blessed nor burdened with knowledge.  This could get very deep, but I won't take this particular path any deeper into the thicket unless people would like me to and say so.  Instead, I would ask what use we make of fairies, and of Faery, and what use they make of us.

   Consider this dream: A young woman has a nightmare in which she wakes up from  sleep to see, in the darkness of her room, a filthy stinking tramp of a man sitting on the end of her bed, whereupon she wakes up in terror.  That man is one of the darker denizens of the faery brood.  What use has he of the sleeping woman?  She knows full well what use he would have of her.  But what use has she of him?  Would you say she had no use of him?  Why then did she invite him to her bed?  Would you say she did not invite him?  Then, perforce, he must have come uninvited.  But does that which does not even exist invite itself, of its own volition, into our company?  Here's a pretty choice for us then: either the faery man comes uninvited, so he must therefore exist, or: the faery man does not exist and can therefore have no will to invite himself, and so therefore the woman herself made the invitation.  Shall we ask the woman why she invited so loathsome a being and, why, having done so, she wakes up with all speed to be away from him?  It's a thicket of paradoxes, isn't it?  Of course we don't (now) need Freud and all his merry men to drag us on a path where already our feet have learned to run, but not all paths are as clear as this one, and not all feet may tread only the paths they choose.

   We live in many worlds if the Moon that looks at us from the wind-stirred lake is many moons, and some people are locked away for carrying out actions in one world which were more appropriate to another, but three worlds (and perhaps four) are of particular interest to us, and they are waking, dreaming, fantasy and, perhaps, trance.  They overlap considerably, both obviously and very unobviously indeed.  We could get lost in definitions here, but as definition is not our present interest, let's be content with a broad perspective, at least until anyone wants to explore a particularly enticing byeway.

   There's no need now to say much about the waking world, and I won't say anything about trance because it's not in my experience, but I will say something about the other two, and I'll begin with the dream world.  In many ways the waking world and the dream world are essentially identical and self-consistent; strange irrationalities or peculiar sequences of events in either the waking world or the dream world are usually only seen in their strangeness from a vantage point in the other.  The laws of physics, for instance, which are rigid in the waking world, are much more mutable in the dream world while the laws of emotion, by contrast, which are tyrranical in the dream world, are very mutable indeed in the waking world where so much lies hidden and bent beneath a veil of hypocrisy.  There are no lies in dreams, as there are no events without causes in the waking world.  In the waking world an event may speed or thwart a wish; in the dream world a wish may conceive or unmake an event.  Does the dream world exist?  If it does, where does it exist?  And what of the dream that even the dreamer has left, buried and unremembered, in the dark caverns of the night?  Let's not waste our time with such riddles as these for they have no answer, and the way out of this thicket is to look at the meaning of the word exist'.  In this context, it means nothing at all, so let's not be caught on this hook.  Logic was invented by a logician, and doesn't contain him.  What we can say is: that some things from the waking world we can bear with us into our dreams (and some things we bear though with choice we would not) and some memories from our dreams we can bring back with us into our waking world, and of these memories, some are precious.

   Now in a dream I met the Goddess.  When I met her it didn't occur to me to put to her the question: "Do you exist?"  It didn't occur to me in the dream; and it doesn't strike me now as being at all a useful question.  That's not how one relates to the Goddess.  Now whether the Goddess had come to me in a forest of the waking world or in a dream of the night, it doesn't make the slightest difference because the response is the same and the memory is the same, and my mind overflowed in the dream, as it would in waking, with the very source of being.  Her reality was to experience, whether waking or in dream, as concrete is to mist.  There was love in it indeed, but there was also something which was as real, as unchanging and as warm compared with love, as love is all of these compared with indifference.  She was dressed in a silver gown, which is not how I would have sought to find her, and the silver was not so much scintillating as a dull grey.  She was not in the least out of this world', but very much of it.  Her visible form was not altogether important, and what form she took she did for reasons that I don't know.  If I think of her as she was then, I think of her form as she showed it to me then, and I'd love that form if ever I saw it again; but for all that, it wasn't the form which spoke to my soul, but the Goddess who took form to enchant me.

   Now there's something not altogether different in our experience of hauntings.  People who use trip wires, infrared detectors and all the rest of the electronic apparatus seldom if ever catch a real ghost, and the Society for Psychic Research has almost empty books.  Ghosts are not that stupid or clumsy; they're very subtle indeed, and they'll wait until your friends have gone home before they'll put a foot under your door.  Or they'll meet you on the lonely road, far from the haunts of people.  They might wear chains, and they might carry their head under their arm, but such are the exception.

  More likely, the ghost you'll see will be a wraith of the dead, once known to you, and it will be the ghost, and not you, who make the tryst, though both the ghost and you will keep it.  There's no escape from a ghost that has laid its clammy hand on your heart for that hand is nearer than breath, and it's no comfort to know that the ghost that stands so menacingly mournful but a few paces away, has stood in that way, in that place, and with that misery, before others who stood where now you stand.  Now there's a powerful symbol!  What will you do with a symbol that won't lie down?  Well, there's exorcism, but would you go to all that trouble for just a symbol?  And in any case, some ghosts resent ineffective attempts at exorcism.  Ghosts are very like dream symbols.  They have this in common with dreams: that they come unbidden.  And they have this difference: that the ghost may haunt not only you.  Ghosts are made of horror, but above all else, they are made of misery and sadness and unfulfilled longing, and they are condemned to toil in a dolorous task for untold years, unless it be grief itself that binds them.

   Now let's consider the fantasy world.  It has this difference from the real world, and as much from the dream world, in that we don't at any time believe our fantasies to be fact.  And in some cases, indeed, we'd be very dismayed if our fantasies were fact.  I won't discuss passing and trivial fantasies such as a person might have momentarily when buying a sweepstake ticket, but something more elaborate.  All of us use sexual fantasies, for instance, and while some may be simple and direct, others may be amazingly complex and bizarre, but whatever the detail, what they have in common is the creation of a kind of world in which we can enjoy ourself, but in which it's not necessary actually to believe.  Belief is quite irrelevant.  It might, or might not, be some little labour to build up the image of the man, the woman, or other entity, animate or inanimate, of our fantasy, but once built, our relationship with that symbol can be intense and rewarding.  Often the symbols are not understood (and it's not necessary to understand them) and often sexuality in such fantasies is itself not the real, but a further symbol of the real which lies deeper.  Nor are the symbols one uses necessarily the same as or even similar to the symbols of another.  In a sense it's arbitrary, or if it isn't, the choices are made in deeper layers of the psyche than the conscious.  Now does a fantasy exist or not?  Again, it's a matter of what we mean by exist', and again if linguists and logicians would like to play with that, I don't think we should waste our time doing so.  It's not a question of: Is it or isn't it?' but of: Do we like it, or don't we?'  A fantasy is a tool we use to achieve some satisfactions, and in this it shares ground with the waking world, for we use the waking world to help us to achieve some satisfactions.  And a rite is a shared fantasy projected onto the waking world, not haphazardly of course, but by careful work on our symbols, and by integrating them with the changing moods of the wild and beautiful Earth.

   In this, fairies have played an important part.  They're amoral, capricious, bound by laws of an altogether different kind from those that bind us.  And they live in what, to us, is the twilight, in the moonlight, in the green deeps of the forest, in the misty bracken, in the mossy pool; they live in all places where boundaries merge.  They may be seen most easily, it's said, out of the corner of the eye, but a direct gaze, if it doesn't bring ill luck, will banish the sight of them.  Some have human shape and some have not, and those who have human shape are usually exceedingly ugly or exceedingly beautiful; they're seldom ordinary.  And they're free as the wind.  Now there's a strange bond between us and the faery folk, for they need us as we need them.  Again, let's not trip over the word exist' or give it the status of a concept, which it's not; the assertion that they exist is as utterly false as is the assertion that they don't (Is twilight made of sunshine or of shadow?)  There are tales of men who have danced in a faery ring and lost their wits, and of the faery child left in place of the stolen human child, but these are exceptions, even as psychosis is the exception in a society screwed up only with neurosis.  On the whole, there's an uneasy truce between the masses of humankind and the hosts of faery, and few of either kind have, of old, trod the paths that wind along the border.  For some, the faery people are tiny and winged, but this is but one aspect of them; their forms are many - as many as there are passions in the human mind.

   Now in the drawing of a picture, say, of a tree in November when the cold wind is blowing and the things of fur and feather are dwindling in their thousands as the food is becoming scarcer and the millions are succumbing to the frost, the tree alone may speak of the wind, of the cold, and in its leaves, of the loss.  But a fairy would do more, not by standing stridently in the forefront of the picture, for no faery would so stand, but in the background, in the gloaming, by the leaning of her body and the blowing of her hair, or by the slant of his arm or the look in his eye, by the tatters of their dresses or the withering of their fingers.  These children of the wild and of the passions, who play leap-frog over the logician's tidy fences, may say in their dancing and in their eyes, in their beauty and their pity, what the words of many would make a labour of, and what the strokes of the artist might otherwise obscure.  When we meet these folk in goblin grottoes, of course, we know they're counterfeits; but in children's fairy story books, sometimes the elven tongue may be read between the lines, and the amoral revelry of the faery hosts may be glimpsed between the leaves.  But it's not every book of fairy stories whereon the faery host has set its seal, for their tongue is of the silver and defies the leaden pen, and their dance is all of insect wings and moonlight, and defies the unwieldy brush.

   The Earth in Spring is a maiden, fair and dight in green, and she is a very enchantress in the May and her priestess enacts her love and longing.  But the Enchantress is the Moon, roaming in the wild and open sky and dancing on the western hills of an evening.  But the Earth in Spring is not the Moon, and the symbols are confused.  And neither is the Earth a maiden, and neither does her priestess bear all the forest on her bosom or wear upon her back the star-strewn emptiness of the black and open night.  The oak in his strength is a symbol of all that is sturdy in a man; the oak in her abundance and the two hundred who feed on her is a symbol of a mother's abundance.  Symbolism can become involved, but basically it's a tool and its contradictions are problems only to those who try to read with the head what was written or painted by the heart.  Now there are two more symbols!  I feel, myself, that the function of a symbol is to evoke, and if in this it fails, then, for that person, that symbol is of no use, because any other function of a symbol is almost certainly better achieved by something more direct.
For myself, I do find Faery evocative (and some are our native gods in disguise).  They seem to carry with them something that is wild and very old, and someting which we, in our progress, seem somehow to have lost by the wayside.


Magaly Guerrero said...

I read this post and had to go dig in boxes :) The thing is that I haven't lived at the location I'm currently living in for too long. And I'm moving again in a year, so I decided not to unpack all my books. But your post made want to take a look at my "A Witch's Guide to Faery Folk" by Edain McCoy. It was a present from a friend and to be totally honest, I've never read it.

I had to find it because when you spoke about Faery and symbolism and, how they made you feel, what you think of them... I recalled what I felt the day I unwrapped the book. I felt something that can only be described as a 'wild touch'. I justified the feeling by telling myself that the cover had leafs and it was green... but after reading your post I wanted to know if I was right. I wasn't. The color of the cover was not what spoke to me. I believe that what touched my heart was the thought of a bunch of wonderful creatures that were (are) in perfect touch with nature in a way, which I would like to be one day. I guess I better start reading my book, huh?

Heronmist said...

Sounds like you should;)

The post is not my composition though, but an archived piece from Tony Kelly who is no longer alive.

Part of the project of this page is to republish such things which might otherwise sink into oblivion. Though the faery folk would not think anything of that.

Charlotte said...

Thank you for sharing these wondrous expressions on your blog. They are a delight to read. You may be interested to visit my new site as we work with the earth energies on some Suffolk land that time forgot. The ethereal activity here is so readily sensed by sensitive visitors (and even some who are not so sensitive), as so much more land would have been to our ancestors.
About the Cottingley Fairies photographs - I saw the daughther of the girl in the photographs on an episode of the Antiques Roadshow and she had brought a collection of the fairy photographs with her. She said that her mother admitted, when an elderly woman, that all but one of the photographs were fake. So it was maintained by her that one photograph was genuine, but I cannot recall which one that was.