As Summer Fades (Memory, Image, and Symbol).

Heather Moorland, A Distinctive Local Habitat.

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.

Peacock Butterfly basking on garden steps.

Peacock Butterfly basking on garden steps.

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.


Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.

Helianthus annuus, the garden Sunflower.  Note the tasteful inclusion of the author’s left arm.

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 …

B.T 28/8/14.

(as you may have guessed these are very much thoughts-in-progress, so this might be continued soon!).


Heather Moorland

(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.




Natural Magic


The Common Bluebell ( Hyacinthoides non-scripta ).

Natural magic sounds as though it should be compatible with animism.  Marian Green, in her introduction to the subject, writes that Nature, our mother, ‘mistress of arcane alchemy’, has all the answers.  ‘We are the stuff of stars … every tree, plant, animal, jewel, and other person shares this ancient heritage’.  Natural magic reconnects us with natural cycles.  Likewise, Nigel Pennick writes that natural magic teaches us we’re not separate from nature, and that we have no special privileges.  The earth, plants, and animals, have as much right to exist as we do.  ‘To practice natural magic is to respect one’s fellow humans as well as all sentient beings in the Cosmos’.  So far, so very good.  Why then, despite being an astrologer, benefiting from herbal medicine, meditating, working with dreams, dowsing, and so forth, have I never wanted to describe what I do as magic?  Why does Nigel Pennick’s account of natural magic, in particular, not feel more compatible with animism, as I understand it?

Historically, natural magic engaged directly with the powers and properties of substances ( planets, stones, metals, herbs, resins etc ), whereas ceremonial magic called upon the assistance of discarnate spirits.  Natural magic can therefore be seen as a disowned ancestral relative of natural science (think of astrology/astronomy, alchemy/chemistry, herbalism/botany).  Despite attempting to master material circumstances however, Renaissance magic was unambiguously transcendental.  It was preoccupied with spiritual ascent.  Patrick Curry observes, for example, that Pico della Mirandola’s magical philosophy was ‘masculinist, will-oriented, anthropocentric … contemptuous of the dark, the feminine, the ensouled let alone embodied, the earth, and all its limits’.  These values, personified in the figure of the Magus, were a major formative influence on Francis Bacon, and hence early science.

The notion of cosmic sympathy, that all divine and material phenomena are connected by ‘sympathetic’ powers or energies within a ‘Great Chain of Being’, emanated from the Stoics, and appears in Plato and Aristotle.  Within this magical paradigm, each animal, plant, or part of the human body, corresponds to a planet or god that can be invoked in order to influence change.  Nick Campion argues that Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (gnostic texts from the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE) turned the Renaissance in a pagan direction and ‘laid the foundations for Western esotericism and occultism’.  Unfortunately, the Hermetic view of humanity was grimly pessimistic.  Salvation entailed focusing on the inner divine, and returning to the Light by means of the planetary spheres.  The material world, the Platonic world of becoming, was regarded as illusory.  Only the absolute, unchanging, disembodied ‘Good’ was real.  How far, then, do neo-Platonic assumptions underpin today’s natural magic?

An Animist Response to Nigel Pennick’s ‘Natural Magic’.

Having liked Nigel Pennick’s Celtic Sacred Landscapes, and noticed that he was once a biologist, I looked forward to reading his Natural Magic.  Because he draws upon the nameless artthe magical tradition of East Anglia, which also happens to be the heartland of contemporary English nature writing, my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high.  This is, after all, a brief introductory guide written over a decade ago.  In the event I found myself arguing with the author’s approach, and provoked into reflecting upon my own ideas and practices.  I therefore want to respond by focusing on differences in perspective, and points of concern.

Chapter One opens with an epigraph from the medieval alchemist Basilius Valentinus.  ‘The Earth is not an inanimate body … All created things draw their strength from the Earth Spirit …’.  For Valentinus, the Earth is maternal because it is animated by a nourishing and sheltering spirit, life.  Nigel Pennick, by contrast, describes a unitary ‘creative force within all things, including us’, which is neutral, and goes on to define natural magic as the right use of this force within nature ‘for the good of all beings, without subverting the free will of others’.  For him, magic is ‘a spiritual, not a material, technology’, whose primary purpose is to ‘uphold our free will and direct it towards personal understanding and spiritual growth’.  It is ‘first and foremost aimed at the spiritual empowerment and development of the individual’.

Like magic, animism is inherently pluralistic, but I suspect that the above differs from most contemporary animism in several respects.  Firstly, this is an emphatically dualist project; the spiritual/material divide is firmly drawn.  Secondly, the emphasis on human will, and intervention based upon human moral agency (stewardship?) rather than dialogue and/or reciprocity, would appear anthropocentric to many ecologists, let alone animists.  How is the natural magician to know what is good for all beings?  Thirdly, the use of magic primarily as a means of personal development is vulnerable to the same critique that has been leveled at therapeutic neo-Shamanism, insofar as the latter internalises and individualises realities that might be more fruitfully understood in social, ecological, and political terms.

Do our working assumptions really matter?  I think they do.  Nigel Pennick’s magical philosophy is inevitably reflected in the content of his book.  I was surprised to find that only fourteen of its ninety pages are devoted to working with plants, birds, or animals.  The difference between ‘magical’ and animist approaches becomes clear in relation to ‘Bird and Animal Magic’.  There is a brief discussion of the process of obtaining an animal helper According to Pennick animal helpers symbolize a part of ourselves that we need in order to survive a crisis, and may already be within us in the form of an inner image.  This can be used to connect with their power, or projected on to real animals as a way of maintaining contact.  An external part of our being, our fetch, ‘a projective spirit’ or guardian angel, may appear as an animal.

Phenomena as complex and subtle as this don’t lend themselves to brief summation, but animist readers will note that Nigel Pennick describes the process of contacting animal helpers entirely in terms of human initiative, and may be surprised that he thinks its ‘not too difficult’.  If you’re on a path of wisdom, for instance, you simply look for a ‘perceptive beast’.  After learning about, and observing, your chosen helper, various spiritual exercises (visualising yourself as the animal, and going on an inner journey in that form) purportedly enable you to become familiar with animal’s inner life.  Judging by the difficulty most humans have understanding domestic cats, I’m somewhat sceptical about this claim.  Anyway, at this point, ‘you will be … able to call upon (your helper’s) power at will when you need it’.

Responding to this from an animist perspective I worry about (i) the focus being entirely on human experience, (ii) the tone being dry and technical; the heart doesn’t appear to be involved, (iii) that a lack of guidance around ethics and etiquette is likely to encourage an exploitative attitude, and (iv) that interaction with flesh and blood other-than-human animals is approached instrumentally, as a mere stepping stone towards acquiring the capacity to undertake implicitly more meaningful magical/psychic work in the service of human need.  These worries are greatly compounded by what comes next; a neo-Platonic sounding injunction about going native.  If, when working with animals, we forget that we are human and regress to ‘a sub-human state’, this may impair our ‘spiritual progress towards a state of higher consciousness’.  In numerous shamanistic and animistic traditions, of course, other-than-human animals offer assistance to humans as spiritual teachers, guides, and messengers.

So to an example of the art.  The Toad, is said to be important in natural magic.  A certain bone from a dead toad is traditionally claimed to confer various superhuman powers.  Well, I’ve just come back from a toading trip.  Last night we rescued sixty of these beautiful little animals from a lane where they were in danger of being run over.  I’m sure Nigel Pennick doesn’t want natural magicians to harvest the grisly remains of road kills, but in contrast with various neo-Shamanic/new animist texts (e.g Gordon ‘the Toad’ MacLellan, 1989), no mention is made of the ethical responsibility incurred when collecting the tools of what, at this point, begins to sound like a very odd trade.  We are not even urged to ask permission for the use of body parts.  Once again there is no sense of dialogue or reciprocity.  No sense of the beauty of other-than-human beings, or affection for them.  They are simply there to be used when we need them.

Another claim that animists are likely to raise an eyebrow at, is that certain kinds of trees are more likely to be enspirited than others.  These turn out to be trees that attract human attention in various ways; by their shape, location, rarity, or ceremonial/folkloric associations.  The Wild Wood is a place we can go to for psychic renewal, without apparently incurring any obligation to reciprocate.  Having heard reports of Pagans stumbling into woods at night, heedless of the needs of non-human residents or the sensibilities of place, in order to conduct loud ceremonies, or seek psychic stimulation, I worry about this too.  There may be a good case for making inner journeys instead.

One of the difficulties I have with the M-word is that it confers a patina of authority on truth claims.  When Robert Bly introduced us to Iron John, the Grimm Brothers’ hairy Wild Man, John Rowan pointed out that for unreconstructed men this was hardly a helpful story.  Rowan argued that because Bly’s Jungian fairy tale says nothing about Iron John’s attitude towards women, he’s not a culturally transformative figure. (see also Robert Connell).  Critical responses notwithstanding, variants of the Wild Man seem to be alive and well in Pagan circles as an image of ‘our natural instincts’.  Nigel Pennick suggests that ‘we’ enter the Wild Wood ‘either in reality or on an inner journey’, in order to contact the ‘Wild Man’ within us, and find our ‘true natural selves’.

From a postmodern animist perspective many question arise here, such as: Who is this all-inclusive ‘we’?  Why should our ‘natural selves’ be more worthwhile than the cultivated selves we have grown through decades of relationship and social participation?  Are we talking about ecological selfhood, and if so wouldn’t that entail relating to other species?  Can there be such a thing as a ‘true’ (pre- or a- social) instinctual response, separate from cultural performance?  Should psychological discourse be dressed up as magic?

As exemplars of ‘the sheer energy of wildness’, Bears and Wolves get a raw deal from Nigel Pennick.  They are only considered in relation to martial arts and the battle frenzy of warrior cults.  The Viking Beserkers, who ‘took their power from the Bear’, apparently often lost control and became ‘possessed’, running amok and killing friends and family.  Likewise, werewolves were said to be more dangerous than real wolves.  Well quite.  I would suggest that stories like this need to be evaluated in the context of a discussion of militaristic masculinities.  The notion that co-operative social animals such as Wolves live lives of unconstrained instinctual spontaneity is surely a product of human discourse, concocted for all-too-human purposes.

No-one has a monopoly on the M-word, of course.  Susan Greenwood, for instance, -who, in contrast to Nigel Pennick illustrates and tests her developing ideas about magic against personal experience- talks about magical consciousness.  She draws upon Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s participation mystique, as indeed do some of those currently writing about enchantment and divination.  In another post I want to consider whether these ideas offer a conception of magic, enchantment, and divination, that feels more compatible with postmodern animism.

to be continued ….


Marian Green, The Elements of Natural Magic, Element Books, 1989.

Nigel Pennick, Natural Magic, Lear Books 2005.

Roy Willis and Patrick Curry, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004.

Nick Campion, The Dawn of Astrology, A Cultural History of Western Astrology, Vol 1: The Ancient and Classical Worlds, Continuum, 2008.

Robert Wallis,  Shamans/Neo-Shamans, Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.

Gordon MacLellan, Sacred Animals, Capall Bann, 1997.

Robert Bly, Iron John, A Book About Men, Element, 1990.

John Rowan, The Horned God, Feminism and Men as Wounding and Healing, Routledge, 1987.

R.W. Connell, Masculinities, Polity Press, 1995.

Susan Greenwood, The Anthropology of Magic, Berg, 2009.