Heather Moorland, A Distinctive Local Habitat.
There’s been a definite chill in the air recently. A flock of about fifty house martins came swooping round the hillside, contentedly chittering to each other. The juvenile birds (I presume, though no-one has been able to confirm this) hurtle up to a parent, then both birds momentarily jam on the brakes and the youngster gets fed in mid air. I love it when they race past at head height. Such energy, and all powered by tiny insects. At this time of year they gather in larger flocks, getting ready to leave for Africa, while we humans stoop to pick blackberries (and soon bilberries) hopefully leaving some for the birds that feed at ground level.
One of my recent walks brought me along a soft peaty path across a heather moor. Wading through the deep heather, the scented air was charged with the warm electric buzzing music of hundreds, probably thousands, of bumble bees, collecting pollen. Best of all, for me, the place was alive with peacock, and some red admiral, butterflies. Their quite big dark shapes flapped up from the path, and from nearby bushes as we passed. This was very pleasing as I’d seen very few on garden buddleias this year. Clearly this was a nectaring hotspot! In 1634, Sir Theodore de Mayerne, physician to King Charles 1, commented that the ‘eyes’ on the wings of the Peacock butterfly “shine curiously like stars, and do cast about them sparks of the colours of the Rainbow”.(1) They lay their eggs on the underside of nettle leaves.
As the lived moment fades into memory, I find myself revisiting it in various ways. A rational voice might say something like ‘in the U.K we have about 75 per cent of the world’s remaining heather moorland, so this is an internationally important habitat, and its under considerable threat …..’. I value this voice for its ability investigate the complexity of ecosystems, cultural forces, and political realites, but another voice wants to stay with the hypnotic beauty of the eyes on a butterflies wings (voice 1 immediately cuts in “from a human perspective! -they’re there to frighten predators!). I often find myself in one or other mode, but hope to encourage amicable dialogue between these (and other) voices.
In ancient Greek mythology the Titaness Mnemosyne, daughter of Uranus and Gaia (sky and earth), was the custodian of memory, and in turn gave birth to the seven muses. She emerged from an oral culture that communicated by means of narrative, image, metaphor, and poetry, and “reminds us that our soul story is revealed through dreams, oracles, feelings, reveries, synchronicities, or sudden images ..” (2).
Re-membering is, of course, fundamental to creativity, and to any hope of biographical integrity. So, memories of that path through the heather will be braided into my ever deepening mental map of the place in which I live, and next time I meet a peacock I might well recall the profusion of butterflies on that wonderful summer afternoon.
Carl Jung emphasised the distinction between a ‘real symbol’ and a ‘mere sign’, and (in 1948) postulated that symbols arise from the unconscious by way of intuition, revelation, or in dreams, as a psychological mechanism that transforms energy. I’ve resorted to italics here to highlight his psychologising and interiorising language. He argued that because of the ‘extermination of polytheism’, and the historical hegemony of Christianity, individual symbol formation has long been suppressed in the West, but presciently sensed its re-emergence.(3) Fortunately his announcement of the extinction of polytheism was premature.
In the same volume Jung quotes extensively from Paracelsus, for whom the corner-stone of all truth was astronomia, and for whom the lumen naturae, the light of nature, was the ‘star’, astrum, sidus, or firmament, within us. The psyche was a night sky whose planets and constellations ‘represent the archetypes in all their luminosity and numinosity’. Jung inserts the distancing notion of representation here, when, for Paracelsus, the star was the light of nature.
From the vast storehouse of Solar lore a fragment comes to hand from the renaissance neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino. “Our soul, besides maintaining the particular powers of its members, promotes the common power of life all through us, but especially through the heart, source of the intimate fire of the soul. Similarly the World Soul flourishes everywhere, but especially through the sun, as it indiscriminately unfolds its common power of life”. (4) Ficino gave a lengthy list of solar objects that are mostly recognisably sun-coloured and/or aromatic. Thomas Moore comments ‘as if by sympathetic magic, these metaphorical objects can in fact bring us the spirit they represent … it is the image that effectively communicates the spirit’. Ficino’s natural magic ‘is really a school of imagination’. There’s that word ‘represent’ again; and that word ‘spirit’.
Geoffrey Cornelius (an influential exponent of divinatory astrology) describes astrological interpretation as ‘an excercise in analogy’. By metaphor, or transposition of meaning, the world is disclosed. He gives an example in which the Sun is taken to represent the C.E.O of a company. ‘We know these poetic transpositions or metaphors by the name of the law of correspondences, fulfilling the Hermetic axiom of ‘as above, so below’.(5)
Paul Ricouer quotes Mircea Eliade’s view that ‘the force of cosmic symbolism lies in the non-arbitrary relationship between the visible sky and the invisible order which it manifests. The sky speaks of wisdom and justice, of immensity, by virtue of the analogical power of its primary signification. Such is the fullness of the symbol as opposed to the emptiness of the sign’. (6) I remember being quite excited when I first found this, but I’m sorry to say I now think the middle section is subjective (and ‘arbitrary’) nonsense. As an astrologer, however, I’m bound to agree with the proposition that the (night) sky does have some sort of non-arbitrary relationship with an invisible order.
So, what to make of the symbol, from an ‘other-than neo-Platonist’ animist perspective? For some contemporary animists, all this talk of an ‘invisible order’, ‘spirit’, and ‘the light of nature’, will reek of dualism, transcendence, and hyperseparation. I’d like to urge caution however. It so happens that I went up into my neighbour’s garden (we were feeding her cat) and took some pictures of her sunflowers on a day when Mercury (planet of communication and writing) was within one degree of the Sun, and at the very time of day when this Mercury-Sun conjunction was ‘on the midheaven’. I had not been thinking about astrology, and had no plans to write about the images. So the flower, named from the Sun, showed for me at the very time when the physical sun was showing prominently, but invisibly, according to astrological tradition, by its angular position.
This suggests to me, that what is being disclosed at such times is a pattern of affinity, co-ocurrance, and relationship, between beings or people (in Irving Hallowell’s sense, where people also refers to all manner of other-than-human beings). It is this affinity, this relationship -between, in this case, ‘solar objects’ and the Sun- that an astrologer, or practitioner of natural magic can work with. Perhaps we need not privilege ‘image’, ‘idea’, or ‘spirit’ then, since these are expressions of ‘real’ (material or subtle) connections -as are sounds, scents, and textures.
It also occurs to me that we should be careful not to assume we have access to a universal meaning of an analogous image. For the human observer, those eyes on the butterfly’s wings might invoke curiosity, wonder, delicate beauty, the ‘stars’ and ‘sparks’ (scintillae) of alchemy. For an approaching blue tit they effectively signify an animal much larger than the insect flashing them as a protective gesture. So, are they ‘just’ a product of relationship, and not really ‘about us’ (humans) at all? Or might we, as passers-by, with our symbolising minds, be included in these conversations too?
There’s been a definite chill in the air recently. A flock of about fifty house martins came swooping round the hillside, contentedly chittering to each other …
(as you may have guessed these are very much thoughts-in-progress, so this might be continued soon!).
(1) On the Peacock Butterfly.
Raptors Alive website, for some political realities of heather moorland politics.
(2) Brian Clark, Muses of Heaven, Astrological Journal, Jan/Feb 2104.
(3) C.J. Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche, Routledge Classics/Bollingen Foundation, 1960.
(4) Marsilio Ficino, The Planets, quoted by Thomas Moore, in The Planets Within, the Astrological Psychology of Marsilio, Ficino, Lindisfarne Books, 1982.
(5) Geoffrey Cornelius, Astrology, Imagination, and the Imaginal, the Astrological Journal, Jan/Feb 2014.
(6) Paul Ricouer, The Conflict of Interpretations, Northwestern University Press, 1974.