“Why do you hunger after our myths and stories? Why don’t you go in search of your own?,” a Cree student once asked me in our James Bay classroom. His words provoked a meaning crisis and sent me on a quest to investigate my roots in the British Isles.
Richard Terdiman (1993) describes a similar meaning, or “memory crisis” that has been plaguing Western peoples since the French Revolution:
"I argue these two theses concerning the century that precedes and informs our own: first, that one of its most powerful perceptions was of massive disruption of traditional forms of memory, and, second, that within the atmosphere of such disruption, the functioning of memory itself, the institution of memory and thereby history, became critical preoccupations in the effort to think through what intellectuals were coming to call the “modern.” The ‘”long nineteenth century” became a present whose self-conception was framed by a disciplined obsession with the past" (5).
Terdiman (1993) also points to the rapid post-Revolutionary urbanization that has swept the world. Urban peoples have been driven “to reconstruct the prehistory of their new environment in an effort to naturalize it” (6). But how far back can I go if my family has only been in North America for some 350 years? And what if political correctness blocks the way?
I remember telling a Mohawk student who said his terra firma was Kahnawake, Quebec, that my homeland was poetry. It then occurred to me to situate my British/Celtic explorations in literature itself, albeit in extant texts recorded by Christian scribes with a bias against paganism. No ur-text exists like that of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus’ Germania; or, On the Origins and Situation of the Germans. Written in 98 CE, it defined these Germanic tribes as standing apart and isolated in their vast inland forests (Schama 1995, 76). Unfortunately this early geographical isolation helped foster the enduring, Germanic obsession with racial purity. It comes as no surprise that Hitler was an avid reader of the Germania (78).
Certainly no Nazi, J.R.R. Tolkien nevertheless wrote The Lord of the Rings ((1954, 1954, 1955) 2005) in response to the lack of a defining English mythology (Glover 1971, 39). His beloved Beowulf (Heaney 2001) would never do as an ur-text because it portrayed a Swedish warrior battling Danish ogres and dragons. Unlike the German tribes’ forest-shrouded homelands, the British Isles, jutting into the Atlantic, has served as a maritime crossroads since the Mesolithic. Barry Cunliffe (1999) describes the geographical impact of the Irish Sea and the English Channel: “We may distinguish the narrowing seas which serve as antichambers between the open Atlantic and other seas, to the north leading to the North Sea and the Baltic and to the South to the Mediterranean. These narrowing seas were choke-points in the maritime system where shipping activities concentrated and in consequence many ports developed” (93). Thus, reaching for my earliest literary sources, I found a melting pot of Anglo-Saxon, Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Old German, and Norman sources. In these texts depicting sea invasions, journeys to magical islands, and mist-filled, otherworldly portals, one theme that stood out was Faery.
I then found a verse form called a glosa, derived from the idea of a gloss, or a note made in the margin that comments on something in the text. More precisely, to write a glosa, you must take four consecutive lines from another source. Using them as an epigraph, you draft an accompanying four stanzas of ten -lines each. Line ten of each stanza is a line from the epigraph, interwoven into the syntax of your poem-commentary. Thus the glosa has allowed me to muse upon, embellish, and transform lines, if not events, from the past.
My musings have involved my imagination much more than my memory. But one proceeds as if doing what Edward S. Casey (1999) calls “a historical reconstruction”:
"It is just because the historian cannot, from her own experiences and resources alone, imagine a given past event in full detail that she seeks out the testimony of those who once witnessed it—which is to say, she seeks their rememberings in lieu of her own. Yet precisely because these rememberings are notoriously untrustworthy (frequently being based on what still others remembered or were reported to remember), the historian must correct and supplement them by her own imaginings in the present". (141)
Reconstructing the past from epigraphs taken from ancient texts can prove even more daunting than cobbling together accounts of modern history. Such early texts are primarily myths, legends, and folklore set in a remote, unverifiable past. As Casey (1991) reminds us: “What we cannot remember, we can try to imagine” (141).
Such imagining was also happening in the Neopagan Revival, a movement that has accompanied and critiqued the Industrial Revolution and has led to contemporary re-inventions of the Faery Faith. To better understand these reconstructive efforts, I attended a workshop given by Celtic shaman Tom Cowan on Faery Doctoring. Such doctors were/are the alternative healers of Ireland with origins dating back to the Iron Age. A famous 19th Century example was Biddy Early, the Wise Woman of Clare. She was given her famous blue bottle by the Faeries to heal the many who sought her out.
Often a Faery Doctor has a Faery co-walker, or “Comimeadh,” (pronounced comemay), which in Gaelic means “attending, or attendant” (Cowan 2008). I met my own Comimeadh via a process called journeying, which goes a follows: you begin with an intent or purpose for your undertaking—for example to meet a co-walker. You then lie down, close your eyes and, aided by a soft continuous drumbeat, imagine a gateway to an otherworld. Entering this parallel universe, you can meet and dialogue with animals, fairy presences, god and goddesses as well as undergo challenging psychic events. This waking dream procedure is exceedingly ancient. An account of it appears at the beginning of the Táin Bó Cuailnge (Kinsella 1969), an epic depicting life in 1st century Ireland. The opening passages of the Táin explain how this oral story had been lost and then re-dreamed, recovered, or remembered. As the Irish poet Muirgen chants over the grave of Fergus mac Roich, one of the heroes of the lost Táin:
"a great mist suddenly formed around him—for the space of three days and three nights he could not be found. And the figure of Fergus approached him in fierce majesty…. Fergus recited him the whole Táin, how everything had happened, from start to finish. Then they [Muirgen and his followers] went back to Senchán with their story, and he rejoiced over it'" (1-2)
This “dreamed” reinvention of oral Irish pre-history eventually appeared as the 12th century written account of the Táin (Kinsella 1969, 1-2). Muirgen’s journeying process is similar to how Casey (1991) defines Jungian active imagining, a visionary and therapeutic meditation that focuses on, elaborates, redirects, and transforms images, often retrieved from dreams, in order to enter the “drama of the psyche itself by participating in what is psychically real” (17). As Casey explains, in order not to be victimized by an upsurge of the unconscious [the terrifying ghostly Fergus], “we can attempt to alter the course of the on-going experience by becoming the agents of fantasy rather than its victims.” Thus journeying/ active imagining is “an image-making, form-giving, creative activity” (4) that can reclaim a lost epic, or transform a contemporary meaning quest.
During one such journey, my Fairy co-walker reminded me that my whole childhood had been touched by elemental presences because I had grown up in a Maine cottage fronted by the Atlantic and backed by a tidal marsh and wood. One thing that active imagining and remembering have in common is that both are “derived from sensory perception” (Casey1991, 137). Consequently as I continued journeying, childhood memories flooded back: In the wood was a gnarled crab apple that I loved because it was low enough for a child of 6 or 7 to climb. I spent hours alone in the arms of this Old Apple Man, overlooking a Faery ring, a circle of dark grass growing up out of the woodland floor. Scientists report that such a grassy ring is caused by mycelia branching their thread-like hyphae underground beneath it. But children, myth and folklore attribute it to the Faeries dancing their rounds there under a full moon. So what else do the old texts tells us about the Faeries?
In one of the earliest written explanations, “The Book of the Invasions of Ireland,” the Faeries, a divine race called the Tuatha Dé Danaan, sailed from “the northern islands of the world” to conquer Ireland (Koch 1997, 244). They fought The Second Battle of Mag Tuired against the native Fomoire, supposedly around the time of “the destruction of Troy” (Gray 1982, n.p.). Preparing for war, King Lug of the Tuatha Dé Danaan asks his people, “what is your power in battle?” (n.p.). As each caste replies, we glimpse the gifts of this Faery race. Druids began prophesying and causing fire to shower down from the sky. Smiths and carpenters went on crafting weaponry of beauty and magic for the warriors who were offering up their martial skills. Poets were poised to satirize and shame their enemies. Witches promised to “enchant the trees and the stones and the sods of the earth so that they would be a host under arms against them” (n.p.). Sorcerers agreed to cause earthquakes and steal two-thirds of the enemies’ strength, while preventing “them from urinating” (n.p.). Harpers tuned their strings, in order to soothe the battle-weary with three strains of music that induced sorrow, joy, and the sleep of forgetfulness. Finally, Faery physicians would heal the wounded and bring the dead back to life with herbs and sacred well water.
Clearly the Tuatha Dé Danaan deserves their title, “the people of many arts” (Gregory (1904) 2007, 14). Art and science, magical or medicinal, spring from efforts of the human imagination. It is not surprising then that Faeries have long been associated with the imagination, whether that of the child, poet, or healer. As muse-figures, they often facilitate the early stages of the creative process. During the Faery Doctoring workshop, Cowan (2008) said, “the Faeries live on the edge where the essence is becoming what is. And this essence is one that yearns to become individualized.” This calls to mind the Faeries crowding around Sleeping Beauty’s birth cradle to shape her destiny. Whether symbol or actual, Faeries inhabit a liminal space of ever becoming. This betwixt-and-between suggests John Keats’s state of doubt and uncertainty that one must rest in long enough to create an original poem. Here in a December 22, 1817, letter to his brothers, Keats writes:
"At once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" (Houghton (1848) 1954, 62).
During another journey, my Faery co-walker showed me this vision of my imagination at work. It appeared as a well of rosy light, in which waves of reddish energy kept contracting inwards, never outwards. Once a wave reached the centre, a new wave from the outer rim pulsed in. I asked to be taken to this edge where the in-coming waves first entered my field of perception. There, suddenly plunged into darkness, I sensed a wind blowing beyond in boundless space. The darkness was greenish—a green burgeoning on the edge of chaos. Casey (1976) describes an “imaginal margin,” a place or “fading fringe found at the outer limit of specific imagined content” (53). Here imagined imagery trails off to “suggest a region located alongside or behind imagined content” (108)—the very description of a parallel “Faery” world found in the Old Celtic texts.
My own experience of this “imaginal margin,” (Casey 1976, 53), or green edge, suggests a burgeoning creativity that issues from a somewhat terrifying yet fertile void, bringing with it the images that our brain needs to function and perceive. Green has always been the Faery color and is, of course associated with the earth, which the Tuatha Dé Danaan retreated into when they were conquered by a new wave of invaders, the Milesians:
When the sons of Míl Espaíne [i.e. the Soldiers of Spain] came to Ireland, their cleverness prevailed over the Tuatha Dé Danann: thus Ireland was left to be divided by Amairgen Glúnmár…He divided Ireland in two, and he gave the half of Ireland that was underground to the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the other to the sons of Míl Espaíne who were of his own blood-kindred. The Tuatha Dé Danann went into the hills and the tumuli [sid-brugaib] (Koch 1997, 95).
Thus Faery became associated with the green hills, Neolithic mounds, and the earth itself. In Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama (1995) affirms that such old nature myths are still alive today, as our modern “landscape tradition” is “built from a rich deposit of myths, memories, and obsessions” (14). He explains that “landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructions of the imagination projected onto woods and water and rock….but it should also be acknowledged that once a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, of making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming, in fact, part of the scenery” (61).
The Victorians, for example, perpetuated their inherited myths about these Faery “People of the Hill,” reworking them for their own cultural ends:
"The Victorians seemed to emphasized the idea of a world within the earth—in part because it was an area that remained to be investigated, in part because it was a realm that the emerging science of archaeology was exploring" (Silver 1999, 43).
This Faery knoll example shows the Victorians continuing to breathe life into the age-old connection “between the faeries and the dead” (Silver 1999, 43). Here too we can see the muddling of categories that Schama (1995) speaks of: are the interred the Christian dead awaiting the Last Judgment, or the pagan dead awaiting rebirth?
But what of the all-but-dead? Traditionally a Faery Doctor would heal a depressed, often listless client by bringing back his or her energies supposedly stolen by the Faeries, for we must remember that Lug’s sorcerers promised to steal two-thirds of an enemy warrior’s energy. Due to the soaring rates of depression, Cowen (2008) believes that today’s Faeries continue to take away our energies, in order to right the imbalances we have caused, particularly in nature. The following glosa explores my own academic lethargy. It was inspired by how a Faery woman lured the Early Irish hero Bran away to her paradise island:
The branch springs from Bran’s hand
so that it is in the woman’s hand
for there is not enough strength
in Bran’s hand to hold it.
The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal
I cut a branch from a crab apple
deep in the wood, a silver branch
and dream all night of how to dress it:
silken ribbons of purple and blue,
seven hawk bells dangling in a row.
I am quickly made to understand
the branch possesses a potency all its own,
calling, called to those it chooses
like the silver one from faeryland;
the branch springs from Bran’s hand.
Bran has dreams too. Waking,
he finds a silver branch in blossom,
a woman entering his locked fort.
She sings of a cultivated island: music
in the air, fragrant with vines and fruit,
sky-blue horses galloping the sands,
and joyful women await his coming.
Bran is called to go; the silver branch
leaps like a lure from his hand,
so that it is in the woman’s hand.
Mine falls prey to other hands,
my own in this age of scientific fact.
I forget my branch on a library shelf.
Dust from the streets covers it,
clouding my desires, leaving me
to starve in spite of the feasting, the wealth,
deaf to the dream-maker’s approach:
her branch cannot pull me out of time,
her songs do not go on at length,
for there is not enough strength
in my hands yet to grasp this gift,
this flowering branch and my breath, wind
through one of its bells. I linger on
among skeptics in barren rooms,
humoring their questions and doubts,
dissecting nothing but what is minute,
nothing compared to a silver branch,
the clear tones and half-tones of its bells
brimming over a level sea, the delight
in Bran’s hand to hold it.
Here a strange woman bearing a magical branch seduces Bran into a reality outside of time. He enters the continuous flow of a dreamtime—a “Land of Women” existing “without grief, without sorrow, without death, without any sickness, without weakness” (Gregory (1904) 2007, 103). This eternal dreamtime eludes most mortals, and perhaps left “dissecting nothing but what is minute,” I remain trapped in my time-driven mind and memories, for as Richard Coe (1984) writes, “what normal memory retains is merely a series of ‘still photographs,’ isolated the one from the other, often in irrational juxtaposition, and consequently with the one essential element which constituted their ‘reality’ omitted altogether” (81).
A metaphor used to describe Faery is water. The Celts worshiped their sacred springs, rivers and wells. In John Matthews’ The Sidhe (2004), a Faery contacted during active imagining, explains:
"We live in a liquid world, a place of constant movement….I do not mean that we live in water, but that the formation of our world is constantly in fluid motion. We do have a form, yet it is not a fixed form….It is also why we are able to pass through your world at every level, physically and spiritually, so that you are aware of us both in the realm of the senses and in that of the Spirit" (91).
This quote emphasizes the protean nature of Faery. It also suggests that Faery has long been a metaphorical way of talking about the imagination itself. Casey (1976) reminds us of the “fluidity and freedom of imagined experience” (36), a state of “unimpeded possibility” (37). And imagined content, Casey explains, is often of an “uneven, undulating character” (107) suggestive of the “liquid world” (Matthews 2004, 91) mentioned above. In the epigraph for the following glosa, the Faery Queen Fand is likened to the water moistening our eye. The Early Irish poets, with their hypersensitivity to the sacred significance of water, saw the saline solution protecting our eyes as a liminal threshold where outer sensations begin their transformative journey into our brain:
FAND, THE FAIRY QUEEN
Fand is the tear that covers the eye,
and she is so named for her purity and beauty,
since there is none like her
anywhere in the world.
The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind
A film of water moistens every eye,
tiny lake with its false bottom
light passes through, threshold awash
between worlds. Little salt sea,
it’s where the mind begins to bend
and play with images, magnified
into desires, the hero Cú Chulaind’s
for Fand, so strong his men mix
a drink of forgetfulness so he can deny
Fand is the tear that covers the eye.
Fand’s first caught in the corner
of his eye, treading across the bay,
its swells, a trick of watery light,
taking on the countenance of clouds,
low moon, eddying abyss.
Eerie like a moon bow over the sea,
pale as dissolving crystals of salt,
she washes away the dust of battle,
the red of age from his eyes quickly,
and she is so named for her purity and beauty.
Cú Chulaind’s jealous young wife
and her fifty maidens with sharpened knives
wait for Fand; a glittering tear
streams down his cheek, is gone
for the living eye is moist and warm.
An eagle flies by, a golden blur,
appearing later, much later in this poem,
as a figure of desire, a messenger of fate,
following Fand the world over,
since there is none like her.
Aqua vitae. Spring of vision,
Fand is the tear we all have cried,
cold mornings on the stuffy bus
with its grey faces and its sleepers,
streams of tears and black eyeliner
streaking cheeks like those of a girl
I saw there once bruised and weeping,
as our wheels spun, and we lurched and swayed,
a crowd of us being hurled
anywhere in the world.
Here “the very lack of sharply focus detail” (Casey 1976, 110) of a figure seen far out at sea permits Cú Chulaind to project his desires and imaginings on the approaching Fand. In other words, the less sharp the focus, the more openness exists for the imagination to play. Also in my poem, I am trying to bridge the distant past and the present—the ancient seaside and the contemporary bus—because the imagination allows for, as Casey (2000) writes, “ a purely possible space and time.” He continues: “Of each imaginative presentation I experienced, it could be said that in it anything was possible” (37). Thus using the glosa, my imagination ranged free to join passages from ancient texts and present day perceptions.
Our blood is comprised of water too. Here, Schama (1993) emphasizes the “ancient pre-Christian tradition, composed of the mutable liquids of blood, wine and water” (288). This ancient confluence of water, blood, and wine reappears in “Thomas the Rhymer,” a Medieval English ballad. The Queen of Elfland is abducting True Thomas to make him her apprentice poet for seven years. To get to her kingdom, Thomas and his beautiful kidnapper imbibe a bit of wine en route after taking on this challenge:
"For forty days and forty nights
They waded through red blood to the knee.
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea."
(Stewart 1992, 55)
This boundary river of blood between our world and that of Faery indicates that we ourselves must encounter our own ancestral blood to get there. Facing and purging one’s self of a trauma-ridden past is done in most traditional cultures in order to enter non-ordinary reality. Orion Foxwood (2007), an Appalachian seer and modern day Faery Doctor, writes about the necessity to do ancestral (memory) work:
The teaching tells us that each of us is born to redeem our bloodline and its inner power. The concept of redemption is rarely addressed in modern mystical practices. Redemption involves resolution and movement of the bloodline spiritually forward. It most often entails encountering certain ancestors, hearing the voice of their crying in the River of Blood and assuring that their problems are not carried forward thorough you into the next generation. This is one way which we, the living, purify the blood and redeem the dead. (99)
In my glosa, “The Loathy Lady,” an ancient Celtic goad, who was typically a physically deformed, powerful Faery woman, chides me for not asking questions about the redemption of my own bloodline:
You asked neither their cause or their meaning.
Had you asked the king would have been made well
and the kingdom made peaceful,
but now there will be battles and killings.
Peredur Son of Evrawg
She comes to wake me from a stupor,
the usual sleep. She’s hideous,
her red face, sagging features,
nostrils flaring like a mule’s with every
breath. I can’t breathe as she stares
with one speckled eye protruding,
the other sunken and lamp black.
I stand mute in the face of miracles,
large or small. She is screaming:
“You asked neither their cause or their meaning.”
Fists clenched, she’s nearly covered
by a ropy, blue black mane, twisting
about her like a back-lit cloud.
She scowls as her eyes test mine.
The protruding one demands answers;
the sunken obsidian one foretells
what haunts me: a wounded father
grown indifferent to his only daughter.
As if I too were deaf, she yells:
“Had you asked, the king would have been made well.”
She accuses me of abandoning a king
laid to sleep on a stone slab.
Veiled or winged, a women tends him,
as a red-eared dog laps a long
wound in his side from which blood
and water pour in two fateful
streams. “Look!” All I see
are shadows behind a waterfall. What is
my question? Would that I were insightful
and the kingdom made peaceful.
My father’s stationed on a stuffed chair,
holding a newspaper come between us.
The dog, not the usual our family
feeds or grooms, licks him
with a black tongue. The curling and uncurling
tongue, doing and repeating its doings,
the stretch of chin and shaggy throat,
free something in me: a howl
not a question, terrible and willing,
but now there will be battles and more killings.
Again and again while glossing epigraphs taken from these early Western European texts, I could hear ancestral voices crying out from this “River of Blood” (Foxwood 2007, 99), particularly to decry how less and less capable we are of controlling human violence.
Pagan “tree idolatry” has existed worldwide (Schama 1995, 14) and rightly so because the tree is one of our most venerable historians. It has long recorded planetary memories of abundance and famine. A recent PBS documentary, In Search of Ancient Ireland (2002), filmed Irish scientists charting the tree rings of three thousand year old bog oaks taken from the peat that had preserved them. The history of the planet’s climate recorded by these rings is amazing. Apparently the Bronze Age in Ireland was a relatively peaceful, agriculturally productive time, but according to the bog oak rings, around 1180 BCE, a dramatic climate change occurred. For some 18 years these ancient oaks experience a complete lack of sunshine, due to what? Volcanic eruptions, meteor hits? Around this time Troy, Mycenae Greece, and the Shang Dynasty all fell. The Egyptians reported invasions of Sea People. And throughout Western Europe hill forts appeared. Did climate disaster, famine, and the consequent uprooting of peoples force us out of the peaceful Bronze Age into the increasingly militaristic Iron Age?
Iron Age violence spilled over into the Early Middle Ages with the Crusades, perpetuating a legacy of brutal conflicts. In the following poem, the Faery Queen chides a medieval knight questing after some distant goal for overlooking the Earth and its immediate, albeit troll-guarded treasures. These forgotten natural resources are part of what Schama (1995) calls “the same dismal tale: of land taken, exploited, exhausted; of traditional cultures said to have lived in a relation of sacred reverence with the soil displaced by the reckless individualist, the capitalist aggressor” (13).
Watch out for trolls
on the road! One or other
of my troll keepers will
deprive you of joy!
Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival
The Old High German trollen
means “running with small steps,”
rustling the undergrowth of a forest,
where a knight, mounted on a monumental,
high-stepping horse, roves
far from his thick-walled stronghold.
The clop of the shod hooves over shale
drowns out the drier sounds
of leaves being crushed by feet like a mole’s.
Watch out for trolls!
As if long fingers were dropping coins,
there’s a dull ringing on the barren ledges,
where a treasure trove, brought out to air,
can appear to be but a pile of dirt.
Dusty pebbles, loosened by something,
suddenly spill as if from a coffer,
their slurred clatter growing fainter,
further down in the leaf fall,
near trees that sough and whisper
on the road. One or other
of the winds, camped on the muddy slope,
lends its gritty force for a time
to something huffing like a feral hound
through a nose bigger than human;
its nostrils flare as it leaps rotting
logs, crashing its way down the hill
towards the knight who’s expecting a leathery
winged, warty skinned, boney
snouted devil! “ Thinking ill
of my troll keepers will
defeat you,” the Lady had warned.
The knight, lifting his fluted, iron
visor with its menacing narrow sights,
stares out of the shadowy helm.
His steely eyes fix on some distant
vanishing point: a crusading convoy
to join, another holocaust to start,
or a melancholic witch to burn.
“Thoughts about whom next to destroy
deprive you of joy.”
My poem Trolls takes inspiration not only from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival ((1215) 2004), but also Albrecht Dürer’s famous 16th Century engraving The Knight, Death and the Devil (Russell 1967, 114). Through the eyes of his Christian knight, Dürer seems to be overlaying the old pagan trolls and land spirits with a Christian reading typical of the early 16th Century. He etches in a stern-faced, impervious knight traversing a grim forest, haunted now by a swine-snouted Devil (the boar and sow were once sacred pagan animals) and his decaying, corpselike sidekick Death. Avoiding what he believes to be the surrounding horror of nature, the knight fixes his somewhat contemptuous gaze on distant goals, religious and/or military. Thus my poem “Trolls,” and the poem that follows, would critique this continuing schism between spirit and denigrated matter:
And he saw the shield at his neck
great and black and ghastly at its centre.
He saw the dragon’s head throwing out
fire and flames with a terrible force.
In Welsh bogs and English fens,
war gear is found ruined, drowned.
The enemy’s killed, his wolf-embossed
sword bent; ferocious boar
cresting his helmet sheered off
and smashed; the raven shield decked
with precious jewels defaced. These totems
once harbored vengeful spirits, beaten,
sacrificed to the war gods and their cromlechs,
and he saw the shield at his neck,
alien thing pounded from meteoric
metals hammered on an anvil’s edge
into a dragon-faced boss, spewing
its boiling clouds of fire. Perceval
stabs into the flame-thrower’s
gullet to kill the battle furor,
the blood madness of his enemy. Iron
helms and mail rattling under the sun,
they clash and clash again; their clamor,
great and black and ghastly at its centre
awakens the banshee to glide
with her mauling dogs through the moor,
their eyes red fire, their fangs
sharp as the clanging, double-edged
sword Perceval drives through the toothed
flange of the dragon shield to rout
its battle magic. He thrusts, thrusts
into the fiery throat where black,
smoking blood has begun to spout.
He saw the dragon’s head throwing out
its last volley, the enemy’s shield
clattering to stony ground. Its matter
the same imploding cyclone of atoms
that pushes, tumbles and tears apart
a Hiroshima. Encased now in fat
metals, a remorseless “gadget”
self-destructs. Nothing’s left to deface,
just a scar burning across the land,
where blast winds run their course,
flames and fire with a terrible force.
In his book, Shamanism and Old English Poetry, Stephen O. Glosecki (1989,53) explains that the boar on an Iron Age warrior’s helmet held his battle manna, put there by spell-weaving smiths reminiscent of those of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Such totemic representations of dragon, boar, or bear were considered alive and needed to be ritually destroyed along with their warriors. Thus across Western Europe, hundreds of Iron Age swords, shields, and helmets have been found ceremonially defaced and drowned so that their owners and their aggressive totemic representatives would not return as vengeful ghosts. But today our atomic “weapons of destruction,” have no such rituals to contain, or exorcise them.
Being interviewed by Ekbert Faas, the British poet Ted Hughes points out that his own Western European ancestors had a much better understanding of the demonic forces of the universe than we do. Unlike us, they did not try to suppress their instinctive, predatory, wild energies, but sought instead to contain them. Our denial of the demonic, states Hughes, is only making it become much more destructive:
"When the wise men know how to create rituals and dogma, the energy can be contained. When the old rituals and dogma have lost credit and disintegrated, and no new ones have been formed, the energy cannot be contained, and so its effect is destructive—and that is the position with us…In the old world God and divine power were invoked at any cost—life seemed worthless without them. In the present world we dare not invoke them—we wouldn’t know how to use them or stop them destroying us" (Hughes quoted in Faas 1971, 10).
Perhaps this too is why I have forgotten the silver branch on a dusty library shelf, the branch once borne by Irish master-poets as a symbol of remembering, of otherworldly communication, and of inspiration. Due to “the massive disruption of traditional forms of memory” (Terdiman 1993, 5), I no longer remember, as these bards once did, how to summon, contain, and work with what Hughes refers to as the demonic, “the bigger energy, the elemental power circuit of the Universe” (quoted in Faas 1971, 9). Going back to the future means, as Faery Doctor Foxwood suggests, listening to ancestral voices “in the River of Blood” (2007, 99), voices urging me to reconsider how earlier peoples used their folklore, rituals, and myths to call forth and control such irrational, violent, highly procreative energies. Taking up the silver branch anew, I need to imagine what I can’t remember, in order to shape new rituals and myths to contain both demonic creation and destruction.
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First Published in: GLOSSING FAERY, IMAGINE WHAT YOU CAN’T REMEMBER
Productive Remembering and Social Agency. Teresa Strong-Wilson, Claudia Mitchell, Susan Allnutt, & Kathleen Pithouse-Morgan (Eds.). Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2013, pp. 105-122.