Chaos, Cosmos, and Chaosmos – 2 Cosmos.

Robert Fludd, The Great Chain of Being from God to Nature and from Nature to Man, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia 1617-1618. Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.”

Robert Fludd, The Great Chain of Being from God to Nature and from Nature to Man, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia 1617-1618. Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.


For the Pythagoreans kósmos expressed a sense that the world as a whole was pervaded by intelligent order, beauty, and structural perfection.  Robert Fludd’s seventeenth century illustration of the Great Chain of Being (above, and discussed here) in which a prominent female figure representing Nature wears a small Sun and Moon on her breasts, is held on a chain by a celestial God, and holds an ape representing ‘art’, or perhaps the alchemist, on a chain below her, should suffice to remind us that images of totality emanate from a particular perspective.  The power dynamics inherent in such unifying visions have been much discussed, of course.

In Cosmos and Psyche (2006) Richard Tarnas responded to postmodern sensibilities by envisioning ‘a cosmic ordering principle whose combination of participatory co-creativity, multivalent complexity, and dynamic indeterminacy’ would not have been comprehensible to Plato.  Because the world now appears more responsive to human intention and consciousness our conception of cosmos needs to incorporate a correspondingly fluid, complex, and unpredictable relationship with ‘a dynamic archetypal order’.(1)  We might wonder whether postmodernity renders the term cosmos redundant, but my own experience of astrology inclines me to agree that the sense of pattern, order, and structure implied by the term is at least as fundamental to the unfolding of lives (the microcosm) within the matrix of chaosmic Nature (the macrocosm), as contingency, complexity, sponteneity, humour, randomness, and surprise.

Tarnas argued for a post-Jungian archetypal astrology by amassing evidence in the form of correlations between planetary cycles and cultural and historical developments in the history of the West.  Despite his description of archetypes as multidimensional (having a formal coherence and consistency that can give rise to many manifestations and meanings) and multivalent (we may relate to them actively or passively) I’m still not comfortable with an essentialising and universalising impetus, and depersonalising tone (c.f. powers or deities) inherent in the concept however.*

Tarnas’ discussion of the cultural importance of the Copernican revolution illuminates the genealogy of how ‘we’ in the late modern West have come to think about cosmos: ‘To have it suddenly dawn on one that the great Earth itself, the most obviously stationary and immovable entity in the cosmos, upon which one had lived in changeless solidity all one’s life, was in fact at that moment moving freely through space […] no longer the absolute fixed centre […] but rather a planet, a wanderer, an exalted celestial body in a new cosmos whose dimensions and structure and meaning were now utterly transfigured; such a revelation must have filled the mind and spirit with an awe seldom known in human history’.(p5)

This most radical of discoveries ’emancipated the modern self from a cosmos of pregiven meanings’ and affirmed confidence in human rationality whilst simultaneously disrupting a longstanding illusion that the cosmos revolved around the earth, and the needs of humankind in particular.  The subsequent Cartesian revolution that radically separated soul from body, and subject from object, and the ‘Copernican revolutions’ of Kant, who attributed the apparent temporal, spatial, and causal order of the world to the interpretive structure of the perceiving mind, and Darwin, who located humans within an evolutionary framework, along with Freud’s diminishment of the rational ego, further decentred the human in a cosmic context.  Western modernity responded by relocating intelligence, soul, spirit, meaning, and purpose, exclusively in the human self, thereby progressively disenchanting the world.(2)

While reading this it occured to me that Freud wasn’t the first to link Copernicus with transformations in the ‘inner cosmos’.(p44)  Nietzsche, whose writings prefigured depth psychology, dramatised the significance of the new cosmology in the voice of a madman confronting the death of God and the onset of nihilism, and in his Genealogy of Morals wrote: “Ever since Copernicus man has been rolling down an incline, faster and faster, away from the centre-whither?  Into the void? Into the ‘piercing sense of his emptiness’?(3).

Tarnas identified the modernist assumption that any ‘apparent’ meaning or purpose in the universe must have been constructed and projected on to it by the human mind as ‘hubris of cosmic proportions’.  In an epilogue, however, he ventured the hardly less anthropocentric suggestion that the creative, unpredictable, and fallible ‘self-reflective human being’ may be ‘a unique vessel and embodiment of the cosmos’.(p492)

Although Cosmos and Psyche was the fruit of extensive collaboration Tarnas has been taken to task for making only a brief passing reference to the work of other astrologers.  Having defended astrology against the prejudice of modernity he no doubt felt that citing actual astrological texts would jeapordise the chance of his work being taken seriously by the mainstream.  He also, perhaps again understandably, overlooked scholars who have taken ‘cosmos’ in a naturalistic direction -notably Alexander von Humboldt, who is widely acknowledged as having bought the term into the modern world- and Carl Sagan, both of whom also attempted the kind of comprehensive and integrative account that a cosmic perspective has long seemed to demand.

And therein lies a familiar problem, namely the privileging of a lone commentator’s apparently impartial panoramic viewpoint.  My feeling is that Tarnas could have said a bit more about the difficulties associated with the uses and misuses of astrology, and about the situated, partial, provisional, and contestable, nature of astrological interpretations.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Towards the end of his life Alexander von Humboldt wrote Cosmos, A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, a five volume account of Nature encompassing phenomena from aurorae, through climatic and vegetation zones on earth, to algae, landscape painting, and poetry, whose index alone makes Richard Tarnas’s 569 page opus look like a slim pamphlet.  In October 1834 he declared “the mad frenzy has seized me of representing in a single work the whole material world.”  The result was a massive collaborative synthesising project.

Though Humboldt made no mention of God or spirituality, his sense of wonder, and the importance of aesthetic and emotional engagement, meant that he was taken up by the American transcendalists and English romantics as well as by scientists such as Darwin.  Interestingly, his faith in the stability of nature was shaken by an earthquake in South America.  No longer could he assume that water rather than earth was the element of motion.  Unlike most scientists of his time who focussed on taxonomic classification, Humboldt sought to integrate detailed empirical measurement with a holistic vision of nature as an interconnected web and global force.  As well as undertaking meticulous surveys, he acknowledged that ‘what speaks to the soul escapes our measurement’ and found that ‘nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul’.(4)

Not least because Humboldt wrote prescient accounts of the effects of deforestation and human induced climate change in South America two hundred years ago, he is now celebrated as a proto-ecologist.  His sense of reciprocity between the human mind and nature informs contemporary definitions of cosmos and cosmopolitics that emphasise communal, participatory, and collective aspects, and relations between human communities and an agentic nonhuman world.  In a move that would no doubt surprise some of Plato’s feminist critics Laura Dassow Walls has reclaimed cosmos as ‘humanity’s oldest ecological vision of our planet’.(5)  Whereas Plato’s cosmos privileged God and Reason and signified an over-arching ordering vision inspired by a Divine Intellect, recent understandings interpret cosmology from a human perspective in terms of stories about our individual and collective place in the universe.

Humboldt’s encounter with indigenous people’s cosmovisions is said to have shaped anthropology, ethnography, and environmentalism (not least through the cosmography of Franz Boas).  For Bruno Latour cosmos is synonymous with “the common good world” -a world in which ‘cosmopolitics’ brings together a pluriverse of peoples and natures living in ‘a commons resilient enough to embrace the future.’  Cosmopolitics of this kind is exemplified by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Bolivia in 2010, where representatives from the Global South and many Indigenous groups presented a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth (UDRME, 2010).  Their decalaration stated that “indigenous peoples, nations, and organizations ancestral ‘cosmovisions’—thousands of years in the making […] conceive of Earth as a ‘person’ or ‘living being with whom [all persons] have an indivisible and interdependent relationship”.  A working Group on Indigenous Peoples identifiedaggression toward Mother Earthas ‘an assault on us’ -meaning all human groups and all other ‘persons,’ including the ‘soils, air, forests, rivers, [and] lakes’ (‘Final Conclusions’ 2010, parag. 2).(Monani and Adamson, 2016:4, citing Latour 2014).

Megalithic astronomy confirms that the human impulse to orient ourselves in relation to cosmic nature is both ancient and widespread.  Across the over developed world this powerful impulse lives on in folk dance, communal rites, and the quiet alchemy of contemplative practice, that may honour the cardinal directions, visible stars, or phases of the Moon, and affirm our interdependence with the living land and a teeming diversity of other-than human life.  Ronald Grimes writes that ‘ritual is the predication of identities and differences (metaphors) so profoundly enacted that they suffuse bone and blood, thereby generating a cosmos (an oriented habitat).  In rites we enact a momentary cosmos of metaphor”.(6).

B.T. 10th January 2017.


*ref ‘archetype’, I prefer to think in terms of story and relationship, but if an astrological equivalent were needed planetary principle should suffice (see Mike Harding, Hymns to the Ancient Gods).


(1) Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, Intimations of a New World View, Plume, 2007 pp73 and 489.

(2) Richard Tarnas, A New Synthesis, Resurgence, 199 March-April 2000, and see here.

(3) Frederick Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morals, Anchor/Doubleday, 1887/1956:291-2.  See also Frederick Nietzsche The Gay Science, New York, Vintage Books 1882/1974:181-2

(4) Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature, the Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt the Lost Hero of Science, John Murray, 2015 pp54,72,235.

(5) Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos; Alexander von Humbolt and the Shaping of America, University of Chicago Press 2009.

(6) Ronald Grimes, Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy, in Graham Harvey ed.  The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013.

Bruno Latour, 2004. “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 450–62.

Salma Monani and Joni Adamson, Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies, Conversations from Earth to Cosmos, Routledge, 2016.

Laura Dassow Walls. (2009) The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and
the Shaping of America, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Laura Dassow Walls. (2015) “Cosmos.” In Keywords for Environmental Studies, eds. Joni Adamson,
William A. Gleason, and David N. Pellow, 47–50. New York: New York University Press.

Chaos, Cosmos, and Chaosmos. 1- Chaos.

When at last I had disabused my mind of the enormous imposture of a design, an object, and an end, a purpose, or a system, I began to see dimly how much more grandeur, beauty, and hope there is in a divine chaos -not chaos in the sense of disorder or confusion but simply the absence of order- than there is in a universe made by a pattern, this draught-board universe my mind had laid out: this machine made world and and piece of mechanism; what a petty despicable microcosmos I had substituted for the reality.” Richard Jeffries, The Absence of Design in Nature, 1887.(1)


Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaotic Flow as Attractor Type and Plasma as Rendering Mode, Free Software Association. Creative Commons.

Chaos evokes the dark abyss of infinite space, the primal matrix of creation and destruction from which ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Taoists, Native Americans, and many other human communities have variously imagined the emergence of deities, stars, elements, other-than-human ancestors, and ultimately humankind.

You’ll no doubt be familiar with feminist accounts of how mother goddesses that once gave form and order to life were demoted during the Bronze age as ‘numinosity was transferred to a father god’.  The Iron Age Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish (‘from on high’) is said to have been the first story in which a mother goddess who generated creation as part of herself was replaced by a god who ‘made’ the world as something separate from himself.  Anne Baring and Jules Cashford regard Marduk’s violent overthrow of Tiamat, in which a Goddess who once sacrificed her son/lover became the sacrificial victim, as the mythological root of patriarchal religion and as a template for subsequent dragon slaying hero myths.  They argue that it marked the overthrow of ‘a goddess culture’ emphasising ‘relationship between every aspect of creation’ by a ‘new culture’ that venerated male deities and rewarded mastery, control, objectification, and violation.(2)

Some three millenia later the feminist philosopher and theologian Grace Jantzen identified a masculinist Western imaginary (a formative constellation of constructs, images, meanings, and values) obsessed with death, and suggested privileging its repressed other, natality, as a transformative possibility.  Far from emerging ex-nihilo, or being ‘thrown into existence’, she reminded us that we are born from a mother’s womb ‘into a welcoming and nurturing web of relationships’.  She argued that a culture of natality would validate empathy and respect, and foster a sense of kinship with other-than-human beings.  ‘We have all begun as part of somebody else; we have all been utterly dependent […] and we are still deeply dependent on the web of relationships with other natals and on the earth that supports us’.(3)  On re-reading this I found myself wondering whether memories of perinatal experience as described by Stanislas Grof -which have often proved uncannily faithful to the mother’s lived experience of birth- might somehow have informed cultural images of chaos?(4)

Wendy Hollway writes “Underneath the image of nature in modern science as passive and entirely knowable is a suppressed signifier of nature as ultimate force, capable of wreaking havoc over mind and culture.  It contains intimations of something which always resists being fully known (like woman) and fully controlled (like woman) -else why the emphasis on pursuit and control.”(5)

I have Bernadette Brady to thank for sparking this train of thought.  She begins Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology (6) by referring to Hesiod’s telling of an ancient Greek creation myth in which a dramatic binary distinction between ‘gloomy chaos’ and the glorious heavens supplanted archaic imagery of a creative and generative primordial chaos.  In Hesiod’s Greece chaos and cosmos were conceived as opposite poles or states within a single continuum.  Cosmos brought knowable and reliable order out of chaos and was thus associated with reason, and valorised.

Not surprisingly, then, chaos, in one guise or another, has often been suggested as a remedy for modern worlds in the grip of alienating Cartesian logic.

In James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, for example, “While HCE (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker/Here Comes Everyman) is the patriarchal hero on the ‘ghostwhite horse’ (FW 214.15) who, like Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist eschatology, concludes unilinear history and the world, in Joyce’s writing of a ‘whorled without aimed’ (FW 272.4-5) he is toppled in the play of chance.”(6)

The Victorian writer and naturalist Richard Jeffries has been celebrated as a forerunner of Chaos ecology.  Fascinatingly, his ‘The Absence of Design in Nature’ (epigraph above) was published in the year before the Flammirion Engraving (also above) depicting a medieval missionary poking his head through a membrane dividing the sublunary world from a mechanical looking celestial sphere.  Perhaps this figure, thought to be the work of a Victorian era artist, expresses a gendered desire to escape incarnation and the memory of ever having been born?  I take Jeffries’ ‘absence of order’ to refer to the absence of an authoritarian overarching order -the kind of blueprint that might be produced by just such a seeker of transcendent cosmic knowledge- rather than an absence of regularity of any kind.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition 'Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family." IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Dynamical Plane. Image used in the exhibition ‘Dynamical Systems and Chaos; The Arnold Family.” IMA@50 Festival of Mathematics and its Applications. Manchester, July 2014. Lasse Rempe-Gillen, Creative Commons.

Scientists of complexity define chaos in terms of its negating function as ‘disorder, irregularity, and unpredictablity’ but also relate it to complex systems that manifest positive emergent properties.  Flocks, swarms, herds, crowds, and cities, are often cited as examples of such systems.  At worst, and this may be a caricature, the science of chaos seeks to ‘explain’ the complexity of life in reductive terms, using simple deterministic laws.  Cognitive scientists, for example, describe consciousness as an emergent property of the complex system of brain neurochemistry and brain-environment interactions.  Although mathematical conceptions of chaos (and images generated from them) may have a certain glacial beauty, my difficulty with them is that they effectively erase the subjectivity, interiority, and agency of the myriad persons, human and more-than-human, who co-create the worlds they describe, and reduce questions about relationship to population level formulae.

Bernadette Brady draws attention to the work of the 8th/9th Century Persian Jewish astrologer Masha’allah ibn Athari who talked about aspects (the angular relationship) between planets in terms of relationship.  Under certain conditions Mars may want to ‘talk’ or ‘work’ with the Sun, but the sun is not open to an exchange (pp61-62).  I’m with her all the way when she compares what I would call his animistic perspective favourably with Kepler’s ‘pursuit of a mechanical sky’, and when she expresses reservations about some twentieth century reductionist approaches that leave no room for sumpatheia.

This Stoic term (or its Pythagorean equivalent harmonia) expressed a sense that, as Diogenes Laertius put it in the 3rd century B.C.E., all things are ‘rendered continuous by their mutual interchange’.(p7).  Crucially, for the Stoics, the cosmos was a perfect living body whose parts depended on the internal tension, or tonos, of the whole, created and sustained by the divine breath pneuma, or world soul.  Sumpatheia also referred to shared feelings.  Our English word “compassion” comes from the Latin compassio, which, it seems, was coined as a loan-translation (also known as a “calque”) of this Greek philosophical term. (see here).  The assumption of interdependence and relationship (of many kinds) encoded in such terms is now more vital than ever, of course.

The key question here seems to be whether we regard chaos, cosmos, and chaosmos, as descriptions of a living world.  Collectively we are now confronted with a paradoxical scenario in which those who see the Earth as a resource that can be ransacked without consequence -the forces of mastery and control- are set to intensify an already alarming trajectory towards anthropogenic chaos -in the negative sense of the term.  It may be too late to hope for some humility in the face of Nature (!?), but its never too late to remember that we humans are (also) an incredibly creative, resilient, and compassionate species.  Harmonia!

B.T. 6th December 2016.

Part 2 looks at Cosmos, and cosmography.


(1) Richard Jeffries, 1887. The Absence of Design in Nature, cited in Heidi M. Scott, Chaos and Cosmos; Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British 19th Century.

(2) Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Evolution of an Image, Viking, 1991.

(3) Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine, Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion, Manchester University Press, 1998.

(4) Stanislas Grof, 1985. Beyond the Brain; Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, State University of New York.

(5) Wendy Hollway, 1989 Subjectivity and Method in Psychology, Sage, cited by Stephen Frosh, 1994. Sexual Difference; Masculinity and Psychoanalysis, Routledge pp102-5.

(6) Bernadette Brady, Cosmos, Chaosmos, and Astrology, Rethinking the Nature of Astrology, Sophia Centre, 2014.

(7) Simon Crook, 2015.  A Petroglyphic Monad: The Constellation of Megalithic Art, Finnegan’s Wake, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project, The Grammar of Matter accessed 28th November 2016.



Love in Death.

Auguste Rodin, Orpheus and Eurydice, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art,. Uploaded to Wikipedia by Ad Meskens.

Auguste Rodin, Orpheus and Eurydice, Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. (Wikipedia, uploaded Ad Meskens).

Mythical stories of descent and return began to make sense to me during the long aftermath of a very difficult bereavement, some years ago.  Locating personal loss within a framework of cosmic renewal reassured me that return (and recovery), however circuitous, was possible, even probable.  The more I read such stories, however, the more obvious it became that, for all their dream-like beauty, they are, necessarily, culturally constructed.

The second act of Gluck’s Orpheo is set in ‘terrible caverns beyond the river Cocytus, darkened in the distance by thick smoke, and … lit by flames’.  My hair stands on end whenever I hear the chorus of angry spirits confronting Orpheus.

“Ah! Be still/ Furies! Spirits! Angry shades!”

Orpheus empathises with the Furies by telling them that he is suffering too: “Have pity at least/ on my cruel sorrow […]  A thousand pains, angry shades/ like you I also suffer,/ I have my own hell within me/ and feel it in my very heart”.(1)  Their voices gradually soften as they withdraw, leaving him to advance into Hades.

Gluck gave his Enlightenment audience an unconvincing (and, I think, musically boring) happy ending.  Euridyce, despondent at Orpheus’s uncommunicativeness, threatens to go back to Hades.  In desperation he turns and looks at her, breaking the condition set for her release, and she dies a second death.  Orpheus then sings his grief (in the gorgeous aria “Che faro?”) and tries to kill himself, whereupon Amor intervenes, restoring Eurydice so that they can return to the upperworld.

I wish I’d come across this music while negotiating the epicentre of that awful bereavement.  All the grieving figures I came across at the time were female.  But that’s a whole other story …

I was eventually drawn to Orpheus and Eurydice when immersed in Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.  Hughes, who had a finely honed sense of the relation between myth and everyday life, wrote that Orpheus was the first story that occured to him after Plath’s death, but that it felt too ‘obvious’ to use.  In one of his letters he recalls a ‘shock twist’ in which Pluto answered that “of course he couldn’t have her back”.(2)  The original myth also resonated in a less obvious way.  In Virgil’s tale Euridyce is pursued by the god Aristaeus, protector of flocks and bees, revered for teaching humans how to restore ailing bee colonies.  Plath’s poetry, and no doubt her life, was haunted by the figure of an authoritarian father who died when she was eight years old, and was a professor of entymology, specialising in bees.

When my close friend Peter died three years ago, I read and re-read his favourite Ted Hughes poem, A Green Mother.  Its opening lines “Why are you afraid?/ In the house of the dead are many cradles”(3) leads into a vision of Earth as an ecological Elysium.  “Bride and groom lie hidden for three days”, another beautiful poem from the extraordinary underworld sequence Cave Birds, reworks the alchemical notion of sacred marriage in a surprising and strangely intimate way.  A couple, like ‘two gods of mud’, gradually construct each others bodies, and ‘bring each other to perfection’.

What I hadn’t realised when I first read these poems was that marriage is a recurrent theme in the death rituals of indigenous tribal peoples.  For example, among the Kol people of India ‘funerals include a betrothal ceremony in which the deceased is united with the people of the land of the dead’.  According to the traditions of the Gurung people of Northern Nepal, the deceased cannot find the path to the land of the ancestors unless a white shroud is provided to cover the body, symbolising ‘a primoridal marriage exchange between the underworld … and the world above of humans’.

During the funeral an origin myth is recited in which, assisted by a shaman, the son enters the underworld with a gift for his parents and returns with a wealth-bearing bird of gold, turqoise, silver, copper, and iron.  With this blessing the rains come, and crops emerge from below, into the human world.  The ceremony works to maintain social and cosmic harmony, and preserve relations between the living and the dead.  In an emotional farewell rite, that may take place months later, a pigeon is tied by a cord to a soul effigy, so that the soul of the deceased may enter the bird.  The pigeon then eats from people’s hands and jumps on some people’s laps before being released into the sky.(4)

Ted Hughes, who studied anthropology, may well have been aware of such accounts, but Cave Birds, is an intensely personal meditation written in the wake of an almost unimaginable series of bereavements.

In the cultural region of Epizephrean Locri, in Southern Italy, death was regarded as birth into a new life, guided by Persephone Kourotrophos, the infant nourishing goddess.  Persephone appeared as ruler of the underworld, a figure of independent power, rather than as maiden or daughter, and patroness of marriage and children.(5)

Hughes also drew upon Celtic mythology, where we find various Otherworld goddesses associated with mortal heroes. Cliodna, for example, like Fand and Welsh Rhiannon, possessed three brightly coloured magical birds that could lull humans into healing sleep with their song.  The human hero, Tadg, came to dwell in her otherworld -a happy place of feasting, sport, and merrymaking- for a while.  When he had to return Cliodna lent him her birds to console him and soften the sorrow of departure.

In this and other similar tales the goddess always initiated contact.  Without her assistance the hero was unable to enter the otherworld unless they died.  Miranda Green suggests that  union with mortals somehow increased the power of these goddesses, and may represent something like a reversal of sacral kingship.  There seems to have been an interdependence between the two realms.  Boundary crossings either way enhanced the power of both.(6)

The story of Gwynn ap Nudd, Gwythyr, and Creidyllad, may have its origins in an earlier seaonal myth.  Lorna Smithers has suggested that Creidyllad might also have been an autonomous goddess, rather than an abducted maiden.  In the 14th century manuscript Speculum Christiani Gwyn holds Creiddylad in reverence and esteem.  His love for her is central.  Although the ruler of the Brythonic underworld, Annwn, ‘may not always be moved directly by human pleas, he can be compelled to answer for love of his partner’.  In later stories where he appears as the King of Fairy, he is often accompanied by his Queen, who is portrayed as a respected equal.  ‘If Gwythyr wins Creiddylad’s hand on Calan Mai (May Day) it would make sense that Gwyn takes her back to Annwn on Nos Galan Gaeaf or Calan Gaeaf (the eve or first of November), another time associated with dangerous spirits’.

The liminality and dangerousness of May eve reminds us, once again, of the proximity of death and birth, and that both events call us to love.

B.T. 31/8/15.


(1) Christoph Willibald Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridyice,  first Vienna Version, 1762, Arnold Ostman, Naxos Opera Classics.

(2): Christopher Reid, ed. The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p732.

(3) Cave Birds, An Alchemical Cave Drama, poems by Ted Hughes and drawings by Leonard Baskin, Viking Press, 1978.  Or, without Baskin’s remarkable drawings, in Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, Faber and faber, 2003.

(4) Angela Sumegi, Understanding Death, An Introduction to Ideas of Self and the Afterlife in World Religions, Wiley 2014, quoting from Stan Royal Mumford, Himalayan Dialogue; Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal, 1989.

(5) Radcliffe, G. III.  Myths of the Underworld Journey; Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ gold tablets, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

(6) Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses; warriors, virgins, mothers, British Museum Press, 1995.

The Blackest Earth, Reclaiming Alchemy?

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm.  Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618.  Matthaus Merian.

Tabula Smaragdina, Macrocosm and microcosm. Engraving attached to Basilica Philosophica, 3rd vol of Johann Daniel Mylius, Opus Medico-Chymicum. 1618. Matthaus Merian.

Several years ago, when writing an article on Ted Hughes, Shaman of the Tribe, I decided to have a look at The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a Rosicrucian allegory of spiritual transformation, written by Johann Valentin Andreae and published in 1616.  Hughes regarded the Chymical Wedding as a tribal dream, and wrote Difficulties of a Bridegroom under its influence.  In one of his letters he suggests imagining Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure performed at a meeting of Rosicrucian practitioners of hermetic magic and religious philosophy, and argues that the characters in such plays perform a symbolic function. The Chymical Wedding includes a description of a play that resembles a mysterious pageant (1), and is itself something of a dreamlike pageant.

I didn’t share Hughes’s enthusiasm for the story, and struggled to make much sense of its alchemical imagery, but was sitting reading the following episode from the sixth of the story’s seven days: – “In this room a bath was prepared for the bird … but after it began to heat, by reason of the lamps placed under it, we had enough to do to keep him in the bath.  We therefore clapped a cover on the kettle and suffered him to thrust out his head through a hole till he had lost all his feathers in the bath, and was as smooth as a new born babe, yet the heat did him no further harm …” -when I was distracted by a commotion in the garden.  I looked out of the window and saw a wood pigeon columba palumbus flapping about frantically in the grass at the foot of the bird table, before flying noisily away (as they do), leaving ‘feathers scattered in the air’ and over the ground.

Magpies chattered raucously.  Jackdaws cawed.  I went up into the garden and was greeted by a robin who flew down and perched in the elder, two or three feet from my head, and ‘proceeded to tell me what had happened’ with great urgency.  Although I was unable to translate the finer points of robin language this had clearly been a sparrowhawk attack.  Had it been the black cat that occasionaly hunted in our garden a pigeon on the ground wouldn’t have escaped. Later that day a lone jackdaw returned and perched, trapeze fashion, on the phone line, bent down over the scene of the crime, and cursed volubly.

The mythical bird in The Chymical Wedding had previously changed his plumage from black to white, and then to colours of incomparable beauty, becoming progresively more docile.  Once his feathers had been removed in the heated bath, a collar was put round his neck.  I can’t claim that woodpigeons (or any other actual species) resemble the bird in the story, and although the pigeon in question left an impressive trail of feathers, she hadn’t been stripped bare.  They do, however, have a white mark on either side of their necks that suggests a collar, giving rise to the widespread folk name ‘ring dove’, and the image of scalding heat removing feathers but causing no further harm seemed a reasonable, if imprecise, metaphor for the sting of the predator’s talons from which the bird had narrowly escaped.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumba, photo: nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus, photo: Nottsexaminer, Creative Commons.

This, then, had been a showing (synchronicity, if you prefer), albeit a minor and unbidden one.  Such occurances need to be read in context, which, in this case, included several other more intimate showings around that time (as ever the best ‘evidence’ is too personal to present to naive or hostile sceptics!), and by then over twenty years of encounters and dreams, many of which decisively associated bird allies with greater or lesser deaths.

My first thought was that the rest of the content of the Chymical Wedding had little to do with this event, which I saw as another example of how the world works -if only we were alert to her cues.  It now occurs to me, however, that the symbolism associated with the dove -a bird of fertility, courtship, and sexual love (Venus) in many cultures, but also the most favoured bird (at least in the form of a white dove) in Christian iconography, where it represents the holy ghost (a dove shown in rays of light or flames), the souls of the redeemed, spiritual love, and innocence, is paradigmatic of the split that alchemy potentially heals.  The dove’s (or columbine) kiss, said to be accompanied by the lovers ‘dying’ in a sexual sense -as Petronius put it: “We clung passionate together and transfused our straying souls back and forth through our lips.  Farewell mortal cares!  Thus I began to die”- was, for instance, reframed by the church fathers as ‘the image of unity and peace which the faithful should have in their contact with each other’.(2)  So, as is often the case, that world-moment may have been more meaning-filled than I first thought.

Alchemische Vereinigung.  Illustration im Buch Donam Dei - Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei.  17th Century.

Alchemische Vereinigung. Illustration im Buch Donam Dei – Ortus diviciarum sapiencie Dei. 17th Century.

The central theme of the Chymical Wedding is an enactment of the hieros gamos, the wedding of a King and Queen, representing a union of (actual or apparent) cosmic opposites – female and male, light and dark, inner and outer, matter and spirit.  Ted Hughes reworked the theme beautifully in Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days in his ‘alchemical cave drama’ sequence, Cave Birds.  I had thought that alchemy was mostly about dramatising transcendence -releasing spirit trapped in (dead) matter, and/or restoring the world by spiritualising matter- but Aaron Cheake’s Alchemical Traditions in which he argues for alchemy as a ‘nondual process’ in which “so called ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ realities (are) co-present, interdependent expressions of a deeper ‘existential’ field of being” appeared to offer an alternative view.(3)

Most animists would have little difficulty agreeing with him that ‘the deep relationship … between metallurgised and physiological processes all pertain strongly to the hidden continuity between all bodies, from the mineral to the divine’.  As a Buddhist, however, Cheake still talks in terms of alchemy engaging material existence, at its most dissolute, ‘in order to turn it into a vehicle of liberation’ of the soul from ‘cycles of generation and corruption’, and even of physis, ‘nature herself’.  In this vision a primordial solar nature ‘transforms its material bindings … into vehicles of transcendence’.  Yet the term alchemy can be traced to ancient Egyptian and Coptic names for Egypt (km.t, keme, kemi, chemia) that, according to Plutarch, refer both to ‘the blackest of soils’ and ‘the black portion of the eye’, and to a cosmology valuing both divine darkness and the infinitely subtle material matrix of nature.

In Cave Birds the Socratic rationalist/complacent cock-sure protagonist is eventually metamorphosed into falcon form (as Horus, consort of the goddess), but as Ann Skea points out, alchemical synthesis must be constantly repeated.  The ‘Great Work’ is never finished.(4)  So the apocalyptic cosmic hypersensivity of the last two poems, The Owl Flower and The Risen, is followed by a brief finale announcing the appearance of a goblin.  As animists we might wonder whether the use of bird symbolism in alchemy, and the various traditions it emerged from, reduces other-than-human persons to caricatures and cyphers.  Or might cockerell, peacock, raven, dove, and falcon-persons have become experts in embodying particular divine ‘energies’, particular facets of nature, in which case might it not be reasonable for we humans, not least with all the science, poetry, and free range intuition now at our disposal, to notice and learn from them?

B.T 5/10/14.


(1) Ted Hughes’s Letter to Donya Feuer, 1979 – in Christopher Reid, ed The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p412.

(2) Beryl Rowland, Birds with Human Souls, a Guide to Bird Symbolism, University of Tennessee Press, 1978 (quoting  Petronius’s Satyricon).

(3) Aaron Cheake, Alchemical Traditions, from Antiquity to the Avant Garde, Numen Books, 2013.

(4) Ann Skea, Ted Hughes, The Poetic Quest, University of New England, 1994 has a detailed account of Ted Hughes’s use of alchemy in Cave Birds.