This time of the year is one of transition, but moving so slowly that it can feel as though we are caught in a spell of darkness – both in the sense of a ‘phase’ and of ‘magic spell’. Is this really the turning point of the year? It seems as if we are suspended, despite the thrust of New Year celebrations. As I’ve written previously, older cultures honoured this ‘time out’, the Twelve Days of Christmas, when work should cease, the gods themselves take a rest and the veil between the worlds is thin. In the old Irish tradition, ‘the gates of heaven are open.’
But the standstill of the year at mid-winter also poses practical issues. Our three new young chickens are enduring what are basically 15 hour nights, from the time they instinctively return to their perches at dusk soon after 4pm, to the first lightening of the sky and cry of the gulls from the river at about 7.15 – exactly the time that I’m writing this! So I’ll break off to go and open up, and make sure they have plenty of feed to peck at to restore their strength.
Just before I go, I’ll post a link below to a traditional song which has a bittersweet quality, and captures the mood of longing, wistfulness and hope which I feel is the essence of this time:
For the night is long And the day is grey The old year is fading The new comes our way.
We know by the moon That we are not too soon And we know by the sky That we are not too high We know by the stars That we are not too far And we know by the ground That we are within sound.
The blog that I’ve prepared below talks about another kind of New Year renewal, one that occurred for me around twenty years ago, but which has stayed with me as an occasion to cherish.
Renewal at New Year
It was the eve of the Millennium. Everyone else was celebrating, but I was languishing at home, ignoring the festivities as best I could. My city exploded with fireworks, fizz and general rejoicing, while I huddled deep inside my spacious house. My husband and I had recently split up and my two grown-up children now had their own lives. I felt very alone – I usually had two Maine Coon cats for company, but tonight they hid themselves in the deepest part of the basement, terrified by the noise. While the rest of the world was celebrating, I switched off my phone, detached myself from the world, and retreated to a very solitary place in my soul. Although harrowing, I realised too that it was a turning point, and from here on I needed to find a way to live positively in my home.
The house would be mine for another two years, until it had to be sold. I had agreed to this, so that we could divide up the assets, so for this period I needed it to be more than an empty shell. Right now, it felt like a place of pain and loss, but our family had spent thirteen happy years there. It had been full of friends, too, and a sanctuary for kindred spirits, with whom we’d talked on deep matters way into the night. And it was my creative hub – I’d written some of my best books there. But now, after our break-up, I felt that the atmosphere was tainted. Could I recover the joy and richness that this home had given us? Enough, at least, to begin my new life in the shell of the old?
A few days later, once the frenzy of the Millennium had died down, I came up with a plan. I knew both from my work with women’s groups and from my training in ritual, that it’s possible to make significant changes in the atmosphere of a space or a building. You can clear the space of recent clouds or conflicts. And with conscious input, you can make a sad place sing, or turn a decaying mood into a beam of hope. The home wouldn’t be again as it was – I had to accept that – but although we can’t ever turn the clock back, we can make it tick cheerfully again.
My network of women friends has always been hugely important to me, and I wanted to engage them in this task. Together, I believed we could dispel any lingering traces of unpleasantness and fill the house with laughter again. This was to be a celebration, an evocation, and a renewal. I invited about a dozen women to spend the evening with me, and indeed the whole night too if they wished. The purpose was serious, but hey, we were going to have fun too!
Women have their own way of using their collective bond to lift spirits and achieve a positive effect. As I’ve written about archetype of the Lady of Light, in my book The Circle of Nine:
“Just being with other women and doing practical, even frivolous, things can be enormously helpful. …Going round the stores, trying on clothes and rummaging through cosmetics in some ways recalls the “gatherer” women in tribal societies. These innocent and apparently light-hearted activities can be of genuine help in releasing a woman from her struggles with individual problems, and bringing renewal through the light that her sisters generate.”
For the first part of the evening, we chatted, laughed, ate, and drank sparkling wine. Not everyone was well acquainted, but I’d chosen women who all shared a devotion to something more profound, and who could honour the spiritual in our lives. When I felt the energy was sufficiently high, and the mood was warm, I asked if the group would purify and bless the house for me. They knew my situation, and were willing to help. I asked them to organise it for me; it was very important that I should step back and relinquish control, in order to truly benefit from the occasion. They must bring light and energy into the house in their own way.
The main purpose, I explained, was to re-awaken all the happiness and good which had been in this home. This in itself would probably be enough to disperse any clouds of negativity. (If the house had had a very unhappy or troubled past, it might have needed a different and deeper kind of ritual. But it had been a happy home for us, and indeed for the family who was there when we bought it.) I would give thanks for this, and then, with the spirit of the house hopefully free and cleansed, I could dwell there with relative peace of mind. After the sale, I could step forward freely into a new life, and whoever lived there next could enjoy a friendly atmosphere.
It was a large house, on several floors, and I suggested that they go through the house however they pleased, as long as they visited each part of it, including the cellars and the attic! Candles and incense were available, bells and bowls, or whatever they wanted, could be used. I reminded them of the useful technique, of striking two stones against each other so as to banish any lingering shadows. They set off like a gaggle of giggling pilgrims. I could have trailed in their wake, but it was a huge relief to leave the process to them.
They rose to the challenge wonderfully. I never discovered every detail, but my abiding memory is of a group of women carrying candles emerging from an upstairs room in a glorious wave of light, laughter, and love. Though they laughed, they were solemn; though they were not formal they brought words of meaning, and true compassion into the house.
I mark that evening as the turnaround point. It was the time when I began to love my home again without being so attached to it, and to feel that I might in due course step away from it without regret. Perhaps this was the night when I learned the immense significance of female friendship.
That was just over twenty years ago, and life has indeed moved on. I sold the Bristol house, moved to Bath, met my second husband Robert on a cruise and started a new life together. Since then, we’ve lived in Gloucestershire and now reside near Exeter in Devon. The family has re-configured, and I now have two lovely granddaughters and an amicable relationship with my ex. Sometimes when you can’t see beyond the clouds of the present moment, it’s worth just entrusting yourself to a future which you can’t envisage, but will come in its own way and in its own time. I regard those seven years which I subsequently spent living alone as very useful, and a good foundation for beginning again in a new partnership.
My first contact with Tarot cards was in California during the summer of 1968, at the age of nineteen. Well, that was certainly at an appropriate place and time! It turned out to be the start of a lifetime’s connection with Tarot, and aroused my latent interest in divination – a way of gaining insight into the world which surrounds us, and a perspective on what the future might hold. My long-term interest in Tarot has been centred mainly on the traditional ‘Marseilles’ pack, with its vigorous images that have been passed down through France, Spain and Italy for hundreds of years.
However, it was a different set of cards which was revealed to me that sunny day in California. This is what I recalled: ‘When I first set eyes on the Tarot cards, they blazed a trail like a comet in my imagination. They hinted at another world, beyond our normal senses, and I knew instinctively that the Tarot could lead me into this realm…. Jo spread out the pack for me. It was a revelation. He used the Rider-Waite pack, created by author A. E. Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably the most popular pack in use today…Every card, including the suits of the Minor Arcana, is represented as a pictorial image, and is rich in symbolism… It is a very vivid, very bright pack. I fell in love with it. I felt that each card was a portal through which I could enter a magical world.
‘Jo’s reading has gone deep into my memory – so deep that I can’t actually recall what he told me! But its impact changed my perceptions radically, and from now on, the Tarot was imprinted on my psyche.’
(Tarot Triumphs: Using the Marseilles Tarot Trumps for Divination and Inspiration, 2016, pp17-18)
I first learnt to read Tarot with the Waite pack, and even when I later prioritised the Marseilles Tarot, the Rider-Waite pack was never far from my mind or indeed my grasp. I keep a set to hand.
But although I delved deep into the symbolism of the Rider-Waite cards, I didn’t think much further about the artist who had painted them – Pamela Colman Smith. In 1909, A. E. Waite, a renowned esoteric scholar and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had commissioned her to create these, under his guidance. They were published by Rider later that year. As has been the case with many female co-creators, her name did not achieve the same prominence as his. Until recently, that is, when her part in the project has been acknowledged far more widely. The pack today is often referred to as the Rider-Waite-Smith pack – something of a mouthful, but fairer to someone who played an essential role in bringing these visionary cards to fruition. It has remained the best-selling, and best-loved Tarot pack in the world, becoming much more widely known after it was re-published in the 1970s.
My own connection with her Tarot cards has had a recent boost, when I found a Rider-Waite pack in a charity shop, of a different vintage to the one I already owned. This one has more beautiful, mellow colours than my existing pack, and looks older, although in fact the edition was published in 1993, later than my first pack from the early ‘70s. It also uses the original pattern for the backs of the cards, one of roses and lilies, as printed in 1909. Below, from the 1993 edition, are some of the cards which especially intrigued me when I first studied the pack – images, colours and landscapes which drew me into the story.
The Pixie of Bude
Robert and I live in Devon, and one of our favourite destinations is Bude, over the border in neighbouring Cornwall, on the north coast. During a recent stay, when the rain was pouring down, we decided to forsake the beach and head to the Castle Museum. I have to admit that our visit was propelled less by culture, and more by the thought of drinking hot coffee there in the warm café with a wonderful view of the waves. But walking through the exhibition area, where we’ve been on previous visits, I was astonished to see a panel now in place commemorating Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot artist and former resident of Bude. Few people now realise that she spent the last decade of her life there, and so local historians and Tarot fans have reclaimed her name for the town. I decided that the time had come for me too to explore Pamela’s life further, and learn about her connection with Bude.
A quiet arrival
When Pamela arrived in Bude in the early 1940s, with her companion Norah Lake, she was an elderly lady in poor health, who chose to live rather quietly. But although she kept a low profile in the town, she was still advertising her artwork; she had been a prolific artist with a varied output, as I’ll describe below. And now, being somewhat impoverished, she needed to make her art pay its way; as well as offering to paint commissions, she sometimes tried to persuade her errand boy to take a piece of art for his wages, rather than ready cash! (He was not enthusiastic.) Pamela had already been in Cornwall for over twenty years before she came to Bude, living on the remote Lizard Peninsula in a house known as Parc Garland since 1919. She now considered herself something of a native. But in her youth, her life had been far from reclusive or remote – she once mixed with a glittering crowd from the worlds of theatre and the arts. She was also a sophisticated international traveller, having lived in America and Jamaica.
In Bude, however, her remarkable life story was little known locally, and when she died in 1951, her effects were auctioned off to pay her debts. She now lies in an unmarked plot in the parish churchyard, thought to be a pauper’s grave. Much about her life in Cornwall and other biographical details has recently been published by local historian Dawn Robinson (see details below). As a minor point of interest, she was not the only person with esoteric interests to die in Bude, since the leading astrologer Alan Leo had also passed away there in 1917, although he was just there on holiday at the time.
Why did she choose to move to Bude? No one knows the exact answer – possibly to ease her financial circumstances after her previous home swallowed up all her resources. Or perhaps she wanted to be close to a Catholic church, a rare commodity in the non-conformist county of Cornwall but one which Bude could provide; she had run her own small Catholic chapel at Parc Garland. But I wonder if instead she was drawn primarily by the landscape of legend in which Bude lies? She was deeply influenced by an earlier visit to Tintagel, a short distance away, with its Arthurian associations.
Pamela Colman Smith was born in 1878 in Pimlico, London, to American parents, and she later moved back to New York with them. As a young woman, she also spent time with her father in Jamaica, where he had business interests, and took up story-telling after she eagerly absorbed many of the traditional tales there. There is some speculation that she may have had West Indian heritage, as she was quite dark in colour, and her appearance, it was often remarked, hinted at something ‘exotic’ in her ancestry. She studied at art college in Brooklyn, and began a prolific, industrious career as an artist, which shifted to England from 1900 onwards. Her work includes illustrations for children’s stories and magazine features, plus the production of Christmas cards and calendars, and original studies of actors and Shakespeare plays. Although these are not ‘visionary’ in the same way that her Tarot and music-related paintings are, they show that she could absorb herself into what might be called a ‘legendary’ style, drawing on myths and folk stories, and depicting enchanted worlds. Later, as we shall see, her mystical and magical images began to emerge more strongly into life.
She was remarkably versatile, and also worked as a bit part actress for the touring company run by the legendary stars Henry Irving and Ellen Terry; they became her friends and benefactors, and she lived with them for a while in Kent. Edy Craig, Ellen’s illegitimate daughter and future suffragette, became one of Pamela’s closest friends. Her alliance with the family also made it easy for her to mix in various bohemian, artistic and literary circles, where she became well-known as an eccentric but talented artist. She had a stellar array of friends and collaborators: Debussy, the Yeats brothers – artist Jack and poet William Butler Yeats, Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame), and children’s writer Arthur Ransome, who claimed that he learned his own rhythms of story-telling from listening to Pamela’s performances. Indeed, she held her own soirees and was famous for sitting cross-legged in gypsy robes while weaving a spell with her tales, reciting poems or singing at the piano. She served her guests with ‘opal hush’, her favourite cocktail of claret and lemonade (a drink also celebrated in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses). Her nickname swiftly became established as Pixie.
Pixie Pamela was celebrated for her unusual, ageless look and distinctive clothing: ‘a little round woman’ dressed in an orange coat adorned with black tassels, hanging loosely over a green skirt, according to Arthur Ransome on his first encounter with her. Her emotional life is still something of a mystery. No evidence of any amorous relationships has ever come to light, with men or women, although there is speculation that she may have been close to Edy Craig. And there is nothing indicative in her later companionship with spiritualist Norah Lake, as in those days it was normal practice for a couple of single women to team up and run a household together.
Some of Pamela’s art work, including the West Indian ‘Annancy’ stories, and prints from her own ‘Green Sheaf’ press.For a short while, she collaborated with Jack Yeats in producing a hand-coloured magazine, which proved too costly and time-consuming as a commercial venture.
Visions, Music and the Golden Dawn
In 1901, she joined the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn, and remained a member for some seven or eight years. This was a magical order, studying symbolism and ritual in a structured fashion, with grades and initiation practices; men and women were admitted on equal status. W. B. Yeats was a member, as was Arthur E. Waite, though during Pamela’s time there a schism there drove each of these men into different branches of the order. Pamela remained in Waite’s camp. Sources of the Golden Dawn teaching included Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism and Hermetic traditions such as alchemy. The set-up and history of the Golden Dawn is complex, and many studies have been written about it, so I will not attempt to go into detail here.
Pamela did not strive to attain the highest ‘grades’ of the Order, the upper rungs of the hierarchy. Perhaps she preferred to stay in the lower ranks to preserve her artistic integrity, instinctively protecting her own creative channels from too much outside dictation of form. But Pamela’s innate magical way of seeing the world – to which the legends and folk tales which she loved were a stepping stone – was probably first given a useful framework there. And even at the lower levels, she would have learnt much about esoteric philosophy, and gained knowledge of a structured, hierarchical magical tradition. This was in contrast to the ‘spiritualist’ approach of the day, inviting trance and spontaneous mystical or psychic experiences to arise. When Waite commissioned her to paint his Tarot cards, he was careful to keep her on a well-defined track, and to avoid complete free flow, as we’ll see.
It’s notable that that she entered the ranks of the Golden Dawn shortly after she first discovered that listening to music could trigger vivid visionary scenes for her. Her sense of a psychic dimension was growing, and the organised frame of reference of Golden Dawn teaching would be a means to understand what was happening. Without that, perhaps her work would not have progressed beyond the personal art of her subjective imagination, into her now famous depictions of the Tarot cards, which speak of a more universal wisdom.
Pamela herself was musical, as mentioned, and her mother was a fine singer. She had illustrious musical friends, such as the composer Debussy and the early music revivalist, Arthur Dolmetsch, and performing and listening to music were key elements of her life. However, something completely new happened on Christmas Day in 1900, which she celebrated at actress Ellen Terry’s house. The family were listening to Ellen’s son Gordon Craig playing a piece by Bach. One moment, it was simply a pleasant musical experience, and then suddenly, as she described it: ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square, and through it I saw a bank and broken ground, the smooth trunks of trees with dark leaves; across from left to right came dancing and frolicking little elfin people with the wind blowing through their hair and billowing their dresses. The picture was very vivid and clear, and a beautiful colour, with bluish mist behind the tree trunks. I drew an outline in pencil of what I saw on the edge of a newspaper, and as I finished – in perhaps a minute – the shutter clicked back again.’ (p 60: as recollected by Pamela in an article – ‘Music Made Visible’, by Mrs Forbes-Sempill, Illustrated London News, 1927; facsimile here.)
It seemed to be a one-off experience, but then a couple of years later, the visions returned when she listened to music. Each time one occurred, she drew it frantically, even when she was in the audience at public concerts. She discovered that if she didn’t do this straight away, she would lose the scene which appeared before her inner eyes. ‘If she ever alters her drawing in the least detail from what she sees, the picture breaks up and disappears. She feels quite detached from these drawings, and is immensely interested in them, viewing them as an outsider who has never seen them before,’ the magazine article continues. In one week in 1908, she completed 94 drawings, some of which she would later elaborate and colour.
Visions, creative imagination, or synesthesia?
Her visions have been described as a form of synesthesia, which is ‘a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses’. (Healthline.com) . But this generally implies a set of associations, not a full-blown image. For instance, I experience it in a mild way, so that the word Tuesday is blue, Wednesday is orange, the note G on the piano is green, D is brown, etc. But even more elaborate cases than mine do not, as far as I am aware, produce a complete, live scene such as Pamela experienced. Her visions seem more akin to the practice of using ‘active imagination’, or ‘pathworking’ in Kabbalah. The scenes have a completeness and a life of their own.
I asked artist and art teacher John Pearce, who is himself very familiar with the Tarot, if he would agree with this. He answered: ‘Synesthesia is missing the point, but the idea isn’t wholly irrelevant. In any case, one should distinguish between fleeting experiences and what Oliver Sacks defines as “true synesthesia” which is “a congenital and often familial condition where there are fixed sensory equivalences which last a lifetime”.
‘Pamela Coleman Smith might have had something comparable to synesthesia. The difference was that her unusual sensibility was expressed as a creative response to a stimulus rather than a predetermined one. The visionary event in the Bach concert may be related to synesthesia, but is much more individual, even though there is an impersonal quality as if she saw a parallel world.’
Pamela Colman Smith’s grandparents were Swedenborgians, a mystical Christian movement in which communication with angels and visions are an accepted part of human experience. William Blake, who also had some connection with this movement, saw clear visions of angels, and some of Pamela’s paintings do have a Blake-like style. So perhaps this expression of wafting figures and otherworldly scenes was already part of her imaginative and ancestral vocabulary, which was later shaped further by the training in symbolism which the Golden Dawn used. Visions may come from another dimension of experience, but they are shaped and interpreted by our own imagination, which in turn is fed by the culture we have absorbed. At any rate, I think it is missing the point to call her experiences synesthesia, and to attribute them solely as neurological events.
Some of Pamela Colman Smith’s ethereal figures above, and one of William Blake’s paintings below, titled ‘The Sea of Time and Space’
When Arthur Waite conceived the notion of creating a new Tarot deck, which would embody some of the wisdom of the Golden Dawn, his thoughts immediately turned to Pamela, and he wrote to an unknown contact: ‘I…have interested a very skilful and original artist in the proposal to design a set…(she) has some knowledge of the Tarot values; she has lent a sympathetic ear to my proposal to rectify the symbolism by reference to channels of knowledge which are not in the open day…The result…is a marriage of art and symbolism.’ Waite was an established scholar and esotericist, who was a leading figure in his branch of the Golden Dawn. He was 52 years old when the Tarot cards were published, whereas Pamela at 31 was very much his junior, and less experienced in esoteric lore. It was a natural consequence that Waite would take the lead.
So Pamela worked chiefly under Waite’s guidance, including in her designs what he considered to be the essential symbolism, but with scope to involve her own vision, and to draw on various historic and artistic influences to achieve the best visual and technical results. The result is a remarkable set of cards, each with an immediacy and presence, but which form part of a distinctive whole. Some of the styles she drew on were those of Japanese prints, medieval illuminations, Renaissance imagery and Arts and Crafts decoration. Her considerable experience of painting stage characters and theatrical scenes came in very useful, as they depend on delineating each figure, gesture and facial expression sharply.
The scenes above painted by Pamela, are both studies of the actor Sir Henry Irving, and in the scene on the left, he is playing Shylock to Ellen Terry’s Portia. Pamela acted with their troupe, and lived more or less as one of the family.
The scenes in her Tarot cards are certainly well-defined, yet there is something of a mysterious and magical quality about them. To throw in a somewhat odd analogy, I remember how I would gaze at the pictures in Rupert Bear strip stories when I was a child, and feel that I could be transported into that beautiful pinkish mauve sky, or climb those distant hills, or meet these strange characters on the path. While writing this post, I suddenly realised that it was much the same thing as my first experience of seeing Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot cards! There is a sense of another world within each image, not fantasy as such, but a kind of mythic dimension which we can grasp. Pamela, as I see it, had the gift to open that ‘shutter’.
The mysteries of Rupert Bear – as I experienced them as a child!
And Waite’s intention was to bring specific meanings into each of her paintings, embodying particular connections to what he called ‘the Secret Tradition.’ With his knowledge, and her imagination, the collaboration was a remarkable and successful project, as we can judge by the longevity of the card deck. In his autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought, 1938, there is a passage which gives a fascinating glimpse of the process:
Now, in those days there was a most imaginative and abnormally psychic artist, named Pamela Colman Smith, who had drifted into the Golden Dawn and loved the Ceremonies…. without pretending or indeed attempting to understand their subsurface consequence. It seemed to some of us in the circle that there was a draughtswoman among us who, under proper guidance, could produce a Tarot with an appeal in the world of art and a suggestion of significance behind the Symbols which would put on them another construction than had ever been dreamed by those who, through many generations, had produced and used them for mere divinatory purposes. My province was to see that the designs – especially those of the important Trumps Major – kept that in the hiddenness which belonged to certain Greater Mysteries, in the Paths of which I was travelling. I am not of course intimating that the Golden Dawn had at that time any deep understanding by inheritance of Tarot Cards; but, if I may so say, it was getting to know under my auspices that their Symbols…were gates which opened on realms of vision beyond occult dreams. I saw to it therefore that Pamela Colman Smith should not be picking up casually any floating images from my own or another mind. She had to be spoon-fed carefully over the Priestess Card, over that which is called the Fool an over the Hanged Man.
(Quoted in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, p. 75)
NB – the syntax of this passage is – well – taxing! I’ve checked it for correctness, and suggest that the meaning is clear enough if read at a brisk pace; otherwise strange clauses and word order may trip us up. I’ve highlighted the sentence where Waite makes it clear that Pamela was deliberately kept on a track which avoided wandering off on associative or psychic impressions, and kept to the principles which he wished to convey.
His method could be seen as over-dominating, but in fact it was most probably helpful to Pamela to have Waite’s guidance in keeping tabs on the essential symbolism and significance of the cards. If she was still immersed in Golden Dawn rituals, it would have been easy for her to ‘pick up’ on other people’s images, which can often affect us when we’re working in psychic closeness with others. Even if the group is working with a chosen symbol, this can take many different shapes and be coloured by our own imaginative versions of it. Having a guide or instructor detached from this can be crucial; those who have worked with ‘guided visualisations’ in a group will know the truth of this. So although Pamela needed to keep her visionary faculties open, she also benefited from having a collaborator who could help her to see beyond ephemeral imagery.
Apparently Pamela wasn’t paid very much for her work, and neither she nor Waite regarded the creation of the pack as a major accomplishment. But, as already stated, it is the most popular deck of Tarot cards ever created, and has sold millions of copies worldwide. It’s where her real claim to fame lies, a claim which is becoming much more widely recognised today.
In some ways, I want to put Pamela’s personal history to the back of my mind now when I pick up the pack. Perhaps just for a few minutes at a time, so that I can walk into the world created by each those cards without too much conscious knowledge of their construction. But I also value this background knowledge, and both aspects are important in our connection with the cards. They can be studied, as they are full of symbols and telling detail, with the weight of a hermetic ‘secret tradition’ behind them, yet they are also admirably suited to just gazing on each image, and allowing an interpretation to come to mind.
In 1908, just before she painted the Tarot, Pamela Colman Smith wrote an article for the Arts & Crafts journal The Craftsman (p380), and what she says paves the way for how we can view her cards:
‘Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything!…Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.’
Since I posted this blog, writer and W.B. Yeats scholar Grevel Lindop has sent me a comment about Pamela Colman Smith’s musical visions, and the suggestion that they might have been triggered by a particular type of Golden Dawn practice:
I had a thought about her visions. Her statement that they began when ‘A shutter clicked back and left a hole in the air about an inch square’ strongly suggests that the visions involved (intentionally or otherwise) the Golden Dawn technique of ‘Tattwa vision’. Here’s my summary of the method, from my Yeats draft:
‘The method was simple: we can take the yellow earth tattwa as an example. You gazed at the [square shape on the] card for about twenty seconds, then moved your gaze to ‘any white surface, such as the ceiling, or a sheet of paper’. You would see ‘a complementary colour’, probably ‘lavender-blue, or pale translucent mauve’. Closing your eyes, you should try to see this lavender square getting bigger, making it large enough to pass through, like a door. Going through it, you would visualise whatever landscape lay beyond – including any inhabitants you might see, who could be deceptive.’
Despite the reference to making it like a door and going through, actually Golden Dawn members often described the rectangle as a ‘window’, and Yeats would experiment on friends by asking them to visualise a small yellow or golden window, and then tell him what they could see through it. PCS’s reference to a square hole in the air that opened like a shutter suggests that her visions were either initially triggered, or at least developed, by the GD tattwa method. I don’t think synaesthesia had much to do with it.
The dates as we have them slightly differ – first ‘vision’ in 1900, joined Golden Dawn 1901. However, she could have begun some informal training or perhaps Mr Yeats invited her to experiment with this method.
Full biographical details of her life and work are now available in two excellent studies:
Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, Stuart Kaplan et al, (U.S.Games Systems Inc, 2018) A beautifully illustrated compilation of Pamela’s art work, plus excellent essays on her life and times, focusing in depth on the Tarot she created.
Pamela Colman Smith: The Pious Pixie, Dawn G. Robinson, Fonthill Media, 2020.) A historian and writer from Bude takes on the task of composing a full biography for Pamela , with special reference to her life in Cornwall
The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A. E. Waite is the classic introduction to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, written by the man who initiated the project.
I am thankful to the Castle Heritage Centre at Bude for alerting me to the fact that Pamela lived in the town. I also acknowledge drawing on some of the illustrations in Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story to illustrate this account, and hope that it will lead to increased sales of this excellent book.
Thanks to John Pearce and Rod Thorn for scrutinising my text here, and making comments. There are also some excellent Tarot and Golden Dawn scholars out there who have helped me build up knowledge of the background over the years, including R. A. Gilbert, Stuart Kaplan and Mary Greer.
Today’s cards are The Empress, The Sun and The Devil. In this Tarot post, I’ll focus in particular on the relationship between them, and what it means to interpret a triad of cards.
Images below by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA for Tarot Triumphs. It just so happens that the Devil comes out larger than the others in my photographs!
Every trio of cards presents its own challenge, because taking the symbols in combination is very different from studying each archetype in turn. We need to learn about them individually first, to grasp their essence, but the real magic of the Tarot comes about when we look at the dynamics between a group of cards. Three is the basic minimum for such a relationship; a solo card is a world unto itself, two cards form a polarity – useful, but goes nowhere except back and forth – but three cards immediately form their own connection. It’s rather like putting three guests together at the dinner table, and wondering how they’re going to react to each other. Will the regal Empress tolerate the sunny-natured, but over-exuberant guest on her right? And how will that sardonic-looking businessman on her left tell her what she needs to know, but doesn’t want to hear, that her financial investments are at risk? He won’t get any thanks for it, that’s for sure. You could invent a multitude of stories about such characters, in keeping with the Tarot archetypes. These particular three strike me as being awkward companions – strong-willed, full of drive and energy, and no doubt opinionated. That’s my immediate take on these three guests, but there are many, many more ways in which you can tell the story of each triad of cards that is picked, and the situations they create.
Indeed, if you like writing fiction, the Tarot offers a good stimulus for creating characters and plot lines. Pick between three and seven cards, and see how they appear to combine and interact. An opportunity once came my way to do just that, when I was invited to submit a story based on a combination of five Tarot Trumps, for an anthology published as Tarot Tales. It is usually more fruitful to pick your cards blind, so that you have something of a surprise, which can be more of a stimulus for the imagination. Or if you already have a particular character in mind, choose the card which represents that person best, and then draw the accompanying cards at random. Not all the cards represent human figures, of course, but there’s always a way of imagining a person emerging from the symbol -a gambler from the Wheel of Fortune, a romantic novelist from the Moon, or a recycling expert from Death! They can be as light or as serious as you wish.
Images of the three cards from the French ‘Conver’ pack from around 1760
A three-card reading, as I write in Tarot Triumphs, is a useful starting point for interpreting a real-life situation too. ‘This is a simple, but effective way of reading the Tarot, and a good place to start, if you are a novice. It is also a useful method for any Tarot reader, to give a snapshot reading for an individual, or if you want to obtain a quick take on a situation. Ask the individual to phrase a simple question and invite him or her to pick three cards from a set of Tarot Trumps which you have shuffled. This is also an effective way of getting to know the Tarot Trumps, playing with them in threefold combinations and seeing what that triad suggests to you. As one of my own Tarot instructors said, ‘After all, Tarot is a game!’ (Historically this was true too, and various versions of full Tarot packs, with the four suits included, were used for card games.)
I’ll take the current cards one by one here, then suggest how they might be seen in conjunction with one another.
The Empress represents worldly feminine authority, and she is also a symbol of fertility. In many of the traditional packs, her voluptuous curves hint at pregnancy, so she has a dual role. As the highest female authority in worldly terms, she helps to guard civilisation, and represents the power of the land. But her role as the mother of heirs is also implicit. She is both an earth mother, with the warmth and nurturing that this implies, but also the strict keeper of the hierarchy and of law. Although an Empress as such might seem rather remote from modern life, we do have our female prime ministers and presidents and members of royal families, all of whom have a particular position of authority. And if you take that into domestic life, even a so-called ‘ordinary mother’ usually operates from a mix of maternal love and strong authority. Both are needed and expected, with the important empathic and emotional bond between mother and child, but also the more detached structure she employs, employing rules and routines to govern behaviour and help the child’s development. The Empress, therefore, can be seen as a stern, controlling woman, which is her predominant feature, but she also carries an element of fertility and sexuality.
A woodblock print Empress from the Bologna pack, contrasting with the finely-painted reproduction of the Empress from the Visconti-Sforza deck, commissioned by nobility.
Unlike the complex, elusive Moon, the Sun shines forth in its simplicity. Its qualities are truth, openness, warmth, and generosity; it could also indicate friendship in a reading, along with trust and personal integrity. Thus the Sun in a prominent position may denote new energy and growth, or the healing of a rift. All in all, it speaks of creativity, love and joy. Every Tarot Trump has its downside though, and the Sun can also signify excessively high spirits reckless enthusiasm, or over-indulgence in pleasure. Too much sun can burn the skin, or even make us ill! Historically, there have been different versions of the card, but the prevalent image is that of two naked children playing innocently under the Sun’s rays. And it may be a very ancient motif, as male twins have been associated with the Sun since the Bronze Age.
We don’t tend to see the devil as a significant force in our lives any more – or at least, we describe malevolent forces in other ways. But let us not assume that this Trump has lost all his significance. Although the Devil in a reading does not for the most part represent evil, it can certainly indicate people or situations that are diminishing our capacity to act, think or feel. The two little devils chained to his plinth have no apparent means of escape. Awareness of this bondage is therefore the first step towards liberation; to have a chance of becoming free, we first need to recognise that we are enslaved. We may need to use intelligence, compassion, or even cunning to release the ties that bind us in an unwelcome way, and to move on. However, sometimes the Devil indicates that this is a situation of very limited choice, and that we have to act from necessity, rather than personal desire. It may be time to ‘do what must be done’ in a difficult situation to stop poison spreading, or to prevent further enchainment. It may be time to blow the whistle, file for bankruptcy, or get the police involved. Unpleasant choices must be made; the Devil must be faced. “Take what you want, and pay the price,” is another relevant saying: the Devil is a reminder of the bill that must be paid.
A gallery of grotesque Devils
Although there are different possible views of the relationship between these three cards, I am drawn to see the Empress as ‘lead’ card here, and the other two as dual aspects of her nature. This is only one of many interpretations, but it does integrate the seemingly opposed forces of her accompanying emblems. The Empress has both sides to her – the warmth and fertility of the sun’s rays, and the often unwelcome, punitive aspect of the devil. She may be gracious and generous, but she is in charge and will wield her power to cut off argument. She can be playful and tender in intimate situations, but is dignified in her outer role as ruler, mother, politician. But I invite you to try other ways of looking at the triad: what happens if the Devil or the Sun is the dominant card? Or if the three form a kind of circuit, where the energy generated courses between them?
In fact, a triad of cards doesn’t always give you a sense of a stable situation, and to anchor this, introducing a fourth card can help, as I’ve suggested in Tarot Triumphs (p. 89). A simple four-card reading involves choosing or picking a single card ‘significator’ to start with. It can act as a centre to the triad of the other three cards, or they can be laid out from left to right as past, present and future. With a fourth card, you have more context to work with, and possibly a time frame.
Reading the Tarot is not for everyone, but I hope by going deeper into the symbolism of the Trumps, I can show that they can be carriers of wisdom and generators of creativity, as a fascinating set of archetypes in their own right.
We, who come among the dead as far
as to the very Goddess, nine girls,
maidens, lovely in our dancing,
in bright loveliness of folded
woven-work, with fine-sawn necklaces
of ivory, shine, brilliant
to the dead eye as forgotten daylight
(7th c. BCE Greek Papyrus, from Dances for Flute and Thunder, transl.Brooks Haxton)
The Nine Ladies
The idea of a group of nine women or maidens who perform healing, dancing, or magical ceremonies is very ancient – much more ancient than we might imagine. It has served as a kind of template for what we could call ‘women’s votive groups’ in both a historical and an archetypal sense. The poem above is from Greece, in the 7th century BCE, describing how nine female spirits dance their way through the realms of the dead to the Goddess. Move forward a thousand years or so to the British myth of nine sisters or priestesses who conveyed the dying King Arthur to the otherworld of Avalon, add in the classical Nine Muses along the way, and we begin to see a story here, of nine women engaged on sacred tasks.
I knew about this template in historical terms to some extent when I first wrote The Circle of Nine, back in the 1980s. The book was conceived as a response to the groups that I and other women were involved in at the time, using a schema of nine feminine archetypes to understand the role they played in our own lives. We called it ‘Nine Ladies’, taking the name from the stone circle in Derbyshire, which we had visited on several occasions. As I wrote the book, I came across a few more historical references to ‘the circle of nine’, but with no internet resources to draw on in those days, and a deadline looming, I couldn’t investigate much further. Then, three years ago, came the opportunity to re-write the book and dig deeper into research. What I found astonished me. I learnt that ‘the Company of Nine’, as I prefer to call it in the broader context, seems to be the fundamental template for women engaged in a votive or sacred task. It’s widespread in time and space, found from Africa to Russia, and from around 10,000 BCE until the present era.
This has been an exciting discovery, and in this post my aim here is to give a brief view of this wide range of groups of nine women. (You’ll find a fuller version in my book, where I’ve dedicated the opening chapter to the Company of Nine.) Overall, there is a range both of those who had a historical reality, as well as those existing in myth, folklore, or are symbolised within the contours of the landscape. Each group seems to have a specific task or function, whether of divination or healing, serving a saint or goddess, or even simply dancing for joy. Their job is often to help others, work magic, or see into the realms of the future.
I would say that this symbolic grouping of women has a particular significance which is still relevant today. And its age-old form has a kind of life of its own. Since The Circle of Nine was first published I’ve been contacted by individual women who’ve discovered the book in a mysterious way, sometimes through dreams or omens. They, and others, have since created their own imaginative take on the Nine, ranging from organising drama courses around the nine archetypes, to making perfumes for the essence of each one. This is not, I’m convinced, just because of the book I’ve written, but because the book taps into something ancient that lives on in the female psyche. And I am just another mouthpiece for this.
Above is the most recent edition of my book published in 2018 by Weiser. Below left, the first edition which came out in 1988 in a series called Compass of Mind which I devised for Batsford, with a cover by Gila Zur. Below right is the second edition in 1991 with Penguin Arkana. Re-writing the text for this new version, I realised that although much had changed for women, the Circle of the Nine archetypes remains a constant in our lives.
So now to some examples of the ‘Company of Nine’:
The Nine Priestesses of Sena
A very fine example of a ‘company of nine’ was recorded by the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela. He reported that a group of nine priestesses lived on an island called Sena, lying off the coast of Brittany – possibly the one known today as the Ile de Sein situated in what is known as the Bay of the Dead, and thought of as a portal to the ‘otherworld’. Here, the women tended the oracle of a Gallic god, and were ‘endowed with singular powers’. Navigators visited the priestesses seeking guidance, wanting to know their destiny, and asking to them to charm the winds and seas to give the mariners a safe passage. These women were also renowned for their ability to shape-shift into different animal forms, and to heal serious wounds and diseases.
The priestesses of Sena seem to have had a historical basis, and similar groups appear in medieval times, where accounts relate how companies of nine women travelled around Scandinavia, acting as seeresses. One such ‘volva’ or spae-queen is described in an Icelandic saga from Greenland; in the saga, a colourful description is given of her visit to a remote village, where she dresses in special robes, and utters her predictions from a throne specially erected for the occasion. Her forecasts relate to weather, health, and future marriages within the community. Legends of the nine abound too; in Brittany, nine witches or spirits are said to inhabit the mountain of Dol. Such myths spread out geographically – St Samson, a dragon-slaying saint from Wales, is said to have had an encounter there with a magical wild woman, the last survivor of a company of nine sisters living in a wood.
Nine Stones in the Landscape
The British landscape too bears many traces of the nine, as with the case of the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire, which I mentioned earlier. Nine Maidens, Nine Sisters or Nine Ladies appear many times over on UK maps as the names of stone circles, stone rows, and wells. According to one study, for example, there are at least six circles in Cornwall called Nine Maidens or Nine Stones. Many of the stone circles bearing the name of ‘nine’ carry legends about nine girls being turned into stone because they danced there at a prohibited time, such as on Sunday. But, although they may be frozen into stone, they can still come to life again. It’s said that if you enter the Nine Maidens circle at Belstone, Dartmoor, at midday, and let the world go still around you, the nine maidens will start their dance again…
Often the name retains the number nine even when the actual number of stones is entirely different. Nine is stubbornly adhered to in the naming or folklore of such a site. Of the six Cornish circles named for the Nine Maidens, apparently only one has nine stones and it’s doubtful that this was the case originally! Arguments by scholars that ‘nine’ is a misunderstanding of the original name have fallen on deaf ears. William Bottrell, the nineteenth century Cornish folklorist, said: ‘You know everybody hereabouts uses nine in all their charms and many other matters.’
Nine does indeed have magical connotations, and it’s likely that in terms of women, the Company of Nine stems from the widespread and ancient idea of the triple goddess, a feminine trinity of cosmic forces. This has often been related to the phases of the moon, and to the phases of a woman’s life as maiden, mother and crone.
Although the tradition of the company of nine women may be ancient, it’s important to emphasise that it was not necessarily associated with these stone alignments when they were first built, some 4000 years ago. It’s more likely, in my view, that the nine were attributed to these places later on, still in ancient times but after the original purpose of the megaliths was forgotten, at which point the stone circles and rows could well have served as ritual places for a different mythology. But perhaps this mythology itself was seeded even before the stone circles were built. There is one really early image of the nine, which could push the timeline right back to between 10,000 and 7,000 BCE. This is a cave painting from Catalonia, which depicts nine women dancing round a male with an erect phallus. Perhaps the dance of the nine maidens was one of the very earliest of rituals.
There is much more of the story still to uncover, but my guess is that the nine maidens played a part in an early magical and perhaps shamanic type of religion, allied to the elements and the spirits of nature. It probably arose in pre-historic times, spreading to different parts of the globe and remaining in folk memory. Traces of it can still be found, where these old practices are still honoured in wilder parts of the world. It remains alive, in different forms, because it does correspond well with female roles, abilities and energies. Here’s a present-day shaman’s song from Mongolia, describing the ‘Nine Sisters’ as they dance between heaven and earth:
We play on the rays of the sun
We ride on the rays of the moon
We rise into the heavens
We descend onto the hills
…Nine young ones danced
They met a glowing mother
Three times in the ritual
We will dance the ancient dance
All nine will dance together!
And don't forget that we still have 'Nine Ladies dancing' in the traditional song, 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'! How many of us previously suspected that this might have such a deep-rooted origin?
My book The Circle of Nine is chiefly about a schema of the nine archetypes, which again has its roots in tradition but has been freshly set up and described for women in modern times. In this schema there are three Queens, three Ladies and three Mothers. Each has her own identity, hence Queen of Beauty, Queen of Night, Queen of the Earth; Lady of Light, Lady of the Hearth, Lady of the Dance; Great Mother, Just Mother and Weaving Mother. This was a schema I inherited, rather than invented, but I have interpreted each one with observations from life and from many years of working with ‘Circle of Nine’ groups.
This post is a revised and newly illustrated version of one originally published on the ‘Singinghead’ blog in July 2018.
The Quest for the Nine Maidens, Stuart McHardy, (Luath Press Ltd, 2003) Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats, Sayan Zhambalov, Virlana Tkacz, (Inner Traditions, 2015) “The Stone Circles of Cornwall”, B. C. Spooner, Folkore (Vol 64, Dec 1953), pp. 484-487
‘As I watched a tallow candle burn in a seashell, I tried to sense the ancient life of the cavern and its early inhabitants. And something strange happened; a connection opened between the caves and my own deep layers of memory. Their shadowy depths seemed to generate wisps of recall, floating streams of impressions that came from a realm beyond my conscious grasp. The Great Mother had stored the memories of her former children here and, even though I could not capture them distinctly, I received fleeting glimpses of the manifold life she had contained in her rocky womb, of the times when both beasts and humans lived within her shelter. The memories of the lives she nourished are still alive there.’
I was visiting Kents Cavern, an extraordinary set of caves entered through a clifftop, near Torquay in Devon. Passing through the unassuming door in the visitor centre, I stepped from the everyday world back into ancient times, entering the darkness of Stone Age, where humans and wild beasts lived in uneasy proximity. I was writing my book The Circle of Nine, about feminine archetypes, and what could have been more symbolic for my chapter on the Great Mother? The opening quote of this blog is taken from this. And, in a more general sense, the experience also linked into my long-term quest to explore my mother’s line of ancestors.
Discovering your female line For women, and very possibly for men too, reconnecting with the female line can be an empowering experience. We emerge from our mother’s body, as she emerged from her mother, and so on, back to our earliest female direct-line ancestor. We can find ways to sense this lineage with only a few facts at our disposal, but through the excellent family history research tools available now, we may be able to get acquainted in more detail with individual grandmothers back through the generations, whose existence we knew nothing of before.
My research into the female line was triggered by my mother’s death, in the year 2000. She was 87, and although I knew that she couldn’t last much longer, I hadn’t take the chances that those last few years offered. Suddenly, I had no living link to my mother’s line of ancestors, and I longed to know more. Following family history research up the mother’s line, sometimes called rather condescendingly ‘the distaff side’, is a quest with a particular challenge. Most modern societies are patrilineal, which means that it’s the father’s surname which is usually passed down through the family, and thus women often change their surname in every generation. Once the oral history link is broken, the female line can all too easily slip into the shadows.
Maria and the Army But nevertheless, approaching family history through historical records can reveal things that our mothers and other close relatives may never have known. My first great thrill, when I took up the research, came when I discovered that my 3 x gt grandmother, Maria Owens, had travelled with the army. It’s on record that she accompanied her soldier husband Edward to Sicily in the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, and gave birth to a daughter there in 1812. Possibly she was with him earlier, in 1809, at the battle of Corunna too. I was inspired to read up about ‘camp followers’, a disparaging term for the wives who were often desperate to stay with their army husbands, and might indeed become destitute if they didn’t. There was a cruel system on some campaigns, where the wives had to travel to the ports of embarkation to take part in a lottery, in order to become official followers. Although I don’t think my grandmother had to do this, just as an example in her case this would have meant travelling from mid-Wales to Plymouth, a huge distance on difficult roads. Those who failed to win a place had to make their way home, sometimes hundreds of miles, with no travel or living expenses awarded to them. Some women jumped into the sea, rather than face this.
But Maria made it one way or another – many women ‘followed’ unofficially, and often had a hard, if adventurous time, unless they were officers’ wives. Maria was married to a foot soldier, so no luxury would have come her way. Female camp followers struggled to find food to eat, and worked as unpaid cooks and laundresses. It must have tested her courage to the full.
The Travelling Urge – I visited the ruins of the little stone cottage in mid-Wales, to which they returned when soldiering days were done, and imagined her leaving this remote, rural environment for the army life in faraway foreign lands. Did this influence the family line ever after? Her grandson, David Owen, my mother’s grandfather, definitely had a roaming urge. His calling as a Baptist minister took him from Wales to Devon to the USA and back to the English Midlands. It’s said in the family that he sought a more open mindset than he could find in rural backwaters. One of his daughters, my Auntie Blanche, wrote to me that she had an adventurous turn of spirit which she attributed to growing up in America. And I’ll confess to a restlessness in my own moves around the country, and to a strong urge to visit many far-flung places abroad, such as the Silk Road, Siberia, and Easter Island. Perhaps if Maria had never decided to go with Edward, that spirit would not have been embedded in the family, on my mother’s side.
Seeking a better life A very different 3 x great grandmother of mine, who is the earliest known grandmother in my direct female line (ie mother’s mother’s mother etc), is another Maria but in this case a Maria Adie, born into a different kind of life at the end of the 18th century. She came from a family, who were silk weavers and miners in the Midlands town of Bedworth. They were poor, as all such workers were, and lived in the humblest terraced cottages in the town. Her daughter Jane, my 2 x great grandmother, started work as a ribbon weaver when she was a child, though she was at least able to learn how to read and write. The Bedworth trade of weaving decorative silk ribbons for ladies’ gowns and bonnets sounded glamorous, but the weavers themselves and their families worked long hours for a pittance. The Adies, and the Lee and Brown families which succeeded them, must have struggled desperately to stay afloat when the bottom fell out of the silk trade around 1840. (This was due to ill-advised import duty changes by the government.) Their town became known as ‘Black Bedworth’, rife with famine and violence. Many families were offered charity places on boats travelling to the USA and Canada, and emigrated from the area.
The images show patterns for the ribbons that were woven from silk, and how they might be used on ladies’ attire
But Jane’s own daughter Sarah (my great-grandmother) found a means of escape with her miner husband Henry. He made a shrewd sideways step, and took a job on the railways. This was a passport to moving elsewhere, something very difficult to do for working people at the time. In their case, it took them to a more secure way of life in Northamptonshire. Here Henry became first a porter and then a signalman at Althorp station, the train halt for Althorp Park, later the home of Princess Diana. Not all the traumas of their previous life were left behind, however, as two of their children died of a diphtheria outbreak due to a polluted water supply.
Below you can see my gt grandmother Sarah Lee, standing with her daughter Sophie who kept the Post Office at Great Brington, near Althorp in Northamptonshire. And here am I, sitting in exactly the same place about 100 years later!
Following down the female line, from Althorp my own grandmother went into service in ‘the big house’ as a lady’s maid. She told her children tales of her time there which, sadly, have never come down to me. I know that she worked at either Althorp itself or Holden House, but the rest is a mystery. My mother, eventually, did what her grandmothers could never dream of, by training at Homerton College, Cambridge, to become a teacher. Here she met my father, as an undergraduate.
Connecting with the grandmothers So much for family history, and the pictures that it can paint of your grandmothers. But what about those grandmothers who you cannot trace this way? In my book The Circle of Nine, I’ve suggested some exercises, as other ways of re-connecting with the grandmothers of your line. An imaginative approach can be rewarding, as we discovered at a women’s camping weekend on the theme of ‘Generations’.
‘The outdoor site was on a gentle slope. We took a rope roughly sixty feet long and tied it securely to a tree trunk at the top of the slope, leaving the bottom end loose. The rope, representing the matrilineal line, was knotted at six points. The first knot, at the bottom of the slope, represented the maternal grandmother. Moving up the rope, the second represented the great-grandmother, and so on up to the knot representing the five-times great-grandmother closest to the tree. One by one, each woman was blindfolded and handed the free end of the rope. From there, she worked her way up the slope, hand over hand on the rope with a helper each side to support her. As each woman pulled her way up the rope, she paused at each knot and greeted the grandmother of that generation. By the close of the exercise, she had travelled roughly 200 years back in time, “meet¬ing” maternal ancestors, most of whom she had previously known nothing about. When we shared our impressions, however, most of us felt that we had had real communication with these unknown grandmothers.’
If you don’t have the facilities to try this exercise – and it does indeed take some setting up! – you could create a much simpler version. Simply substitute a length of cord that will stretch across the room, with enough to spare for knot-tying as above, and a loose end for holding. Secure one end of the cord to an anchor point such as a door handle. Ensure that you have a clear passage across the room, and with your eyes closed, hold the end of the cord and make your way from one knot or ‘grandmother’ to another, as just described. Keep the action gentle, without too much physical force. This could be done alone or with other women in turn.
And you can even do a completely internalised version: imagine yourself holding that knotted rope, and feeling your way along it to pay tribute to each grandmother. Find a way that works best for you, for instance by just invoking a tactile sense of the rope, rather than seeing it as an image. Or you can picture the rope as it was in our outdoor exercise, stretching up a grassy hill to an old, ancient tree beyond, to which it is safely tethered. Feel free to experiment and see which is the most evocative way for you to connect with the grandmothers.
There are simple everyday activities which can also connect a woman to her female ancestry. Just bring your grandmothers to mind as you do the same simple things that they would have done – picking blackberries, washing clothes, stirring a pot on the stove. Our lives have expanded greatly now in terms of professions and occupations, but there are core tasks that we still do, which haven’t changed so very much. Pick up ordinary objects, such as baskets, combs, saucepans, spoons, and spades – let your mind run back up that female line, and enjoy the moment of sharing activities passed down from mother to daughter.
The grandmothers who surprise us Returning to family history research, you may stumble across female ancestors whose lives were just that bit different. As well as my globe-trotting grandmother Maria, I’ve also discovered a 4 x grandmother in Ireland who was abducted by her cousin at the age of 13. She was carried off by an ‘raiding party’ from Waterford to Wales, from Wales to Scotland where they got married, then from Scotland to Brighton and thence to Paris, with the magistrate’s men hot on their heels. I’ll be telling her story in my blog next week, so catch the next episode here!
So at last my mind could now run up and down the storylines, feeling both compassion and admiration for my grandmothers who struggled to provide a better future for their granddaughters-to-be. I relish knowing that some of my grandmothers had adventures, probably facing more challenges than I have ever had to, in our much-expanded way of life today. I’m thankful that they persisted, sometimes against the odds, and kept their line going.
This article is adapted from my book Russian Magic (first published as The Soul of Russia). It opens Chapter Five, ‘The Secrets of Life and Death’ celebrating the mystique and myths of the Russian witch and crone, Baba Yaga. Although she’s a popular figure of Russian folk lore, yet she’s a shadowy, complex figure, who may have a role in the old pre-Christian rituals of the land of ‘Rus’.
This is the second of four posts celebrating the years I spent going back and forth to Russia, in search of its ancient culture and mythology. I’m flattered that the young conductor Alexander Prior said of my book: ‘It’s the first time any Westerner has understood the Russian soul.’
Baba Yaga’s Kingdom
‘Beyond the thrice-nine lands, in the thrice-ten kingdom there lives Baba-Yaga, the witch. Her house stands in a forest beyond the Flaming River.’ (from the story of Maria Morevna)
Baba Yaga is an ugly, cantankerous old woman, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken’s feet in the middle of the forest, and who flies around the skies by means of a pestle and mortar. She captures small children, tricks young maidens, and kills just about anyone who crosses her. This wicked witch of Russian fairy stories is familiar to every person in the land, and her fame, or notoriety, has spread further afield, so that she is also well-known in Europe and America. She is a stock character in folk tales, and also turns up regularly in other contexts: in modern Russian cartoons and children’s books, as a puppet, and in more high-minded art as a character in Modest Mussorgsky’s suite of music, Pictures from an Exhibition.
Baba Yaga is also a useful weapon for Russian parents to frighten small children who are misbehaving.
‘Sit down, and finish your supper, otherwise Baba Yaga will come for you!’
Olga, otherwise an extremely patient grandmother, had finally had enough of small Dima’s noisy behaviour at the supper table. On hearing the dreaded name, he subsided instantly; a watchful, fearful look in his eyes as he sat back quietly to eat his meal. A few minutes later, though, after the threat of the witch had worn off, he began to jump up and down again.
Olga was quick to react. She got to her feet and peered out of the window.
‘Baba Yaga’s coming down the lane now,’ she said.
Dima was back in his seat before any of us could blink twice, and we finished our evening meal in peace. Baba Yaga is fond of stealing little children in order to cook them up for her own supper.
But although she has a world-wide reputation, and is a star of wonder tales, woodcuts, comics and animated films, Baba Yaga remains enigmatic and ambivalent, ultimately a mysterious figure whose source is unknown. No one is quite sure of her origins, her function, or of whether she is ultimately a force for good or evil. All studies seem to agree, however, that her role is much more than that of a pantomime-style witch. Baba Yaga stands at the boundaries of life and death, at the borders of darkness and rebirth.
‘Leg of Stone, Toothless Crone’
Baba Yaga is of grotesque appearance, with lank greasy hair, a long nose, and a leg which is either made of stone in polite renderings, or of faeces in more earthy accounts. Her bulk fills up her hut when she is at home, and, when out of it, she flies around in a mortar made of iron, which she steers with a pestle. Sometimes, as in the story mentioned below, she rides instead on a magic horse chosen from her herd of doughty mares. She lives deep in the forest, and has a fondness for killing and perhaps eating visitors, whose skulls she nails to posts impaled in the ground around her hut. This hut also has the property of revolving at the witch’s command, hiding or concealing its entrance according to her word.
In common parlance, the term Baba Yaga is used in Russian for any cantankerous old woman. There is no common agreement as to where the Yaga (or Iaga, Ega, Egibihk and other variations) part of her name comes from. The ‘Baba’ prefix refers to woman or mother, but Yaga may be connected to the word for snake, for pain, or even for pelican, according to various authorities, or, more likely, to none of these.
Her role in traditional stories is to challenge anyone who strays into her domain, whom she may then attack, kill, advise, help or strike a bargain with, or any combination of these functions. She is fond of both drinking and spilling Russian blood, and can smell it approaching from afar. New arrivals are often greeted with the question, ‘Are you here to do something, or are you running away from something?’ – words that suggest a ritual confrontation, a challenge to test the visitor’s determination.
Her attitude towards children and girls is different to the stance she takes with young men. She may capture and consume small children, she may imprison young girls or choose to let them go unharmed, but she always challenges and tests youths and men. This has led to a theory that Baba Yaga is in origin the ancient goddess of the underworld, who conducts young men through initiation ceremonies at their coming of age. They must show bravery and cunning, avoid the traps and snares that she sets, and perform near-impossible tasks in order to win through and be worthy of manhood.
In the story of Maria Morevna, quoted earlier, Prince Ivan encounters Baba Yaga when he is in search of his abducted wife, the warrior queen Maria Morevna. Baba Yaga’s house is surrounded by twelve poles, all but one crowned with a human head, and Ivan recognises that the last one has been saved for his own head to crown. But Baba Yaga promises to spare him, and grant him his freedom, if he will look after her horses for three days. She has many fine mares, and flies around the world each day on one of them; she is ready to offer Ivan one of these magical steeds if he can care for the whole herd.
The task is more difficult than he thinks, since for two days running, the horses gallop off into the forest as soon as he takes them out to pasture, and he falls into a heavy slumber till the end of the day. But he is then helped by creatures who he has been kind to earlier in his travels, and manages to get the herd back to the house with the mares intact. At midnight, knowing that Baba Yaga will never honour her promise, he decides to escape; he steals a colt and rides off towards the flaming river, where his wife waits for him on the other side.
Going to sleep on the job, as with the story of Prince Ivan and the Firebird, is a mistake for young would-be heroes, and in this case it may correspond with the sleep deprivation that often accompanies initiation rites, where keeping a vigil can be a significant phase of the process. All the old habits of eating, sleeping and bathing must be uprooted, and Baba Yaga’s offer of steam baths and food in some stories may be echoes of new and possibly dangerous experiences in this department. There is a strong tradition of women initiating boys into manhood in various societies: for instance in the early Middle Ages in Western Europe, women would present young men with weapons so that they could become warriors or knights. And in mythology, King Arthur himself is said to have received his magical sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.
Male initiation is often sexual, too. The horrific appearance of Baba Yaga as an ugly old crone, who may be farting and exposing her foaming genitalia, denotes the reverse of everything lovely and maidenly. This may challenge the young man’s unquestioning attachment to the beauty of the female form, and force him to look with different eyes at an adult woman. The witch is also the opposite of the comforting, familiar mother figure, and this may help to break his dependence upon his mother, in order to claim his manhood, and make a new and truer bond with a woman who can become his wife. In the story of Maria Morevna, although Ivan is married to her already, she is abducted on account of his naivety and carelessness, and it is only by showing genuine bravery and effort that he can finally reclaim her, and make her truly his own.
If the forest ritual was once a cultural event, marking the passage from youth into manhood, then most likely it would have been enacted by a person, male or female, dressed and masked as Baba Yaga, to give a terrifying appearance. Some weight is lent to this by the fact that fairy stories may contain ‘a’ Baba Yaga, or even several of them, suggesting that there could be local Baba Yagas. There may be three sister Baba Yagas, for instance. This may also relate to the symbolism of the triple goddess, an idea which is widespread through various cultures. The three faces or figures of this goddess are maiden, mother and crone, and there is no doubt that in this schema, Baba Yaga would be a manifestation of the crone figure.
The symbolism of the triple goddess is intimately connected with the phases of the moon, so that the maiden can be seen as the crescent moon, who then grows to fullness as mother, and finally declines into the dark phase as the crone, a phase associated with Hecate in Greek myth, for instance. The crone may be frightening, old, smelly and in some ways evil, but she is also the embodiment of wisdom, and no understanding of woman is complete without her. It has also been suggested that Baba Yaga’s hut, which revolves to conceal or reveal its opening, may itself be associated with cycles of the moon, and of feminine sexuality, so that Baba Yaga’s role as crone could also thus embody knowledge about female sexual cycles, about menstruation and the waxing and waning of fertility and desire, knowledge which young men need to acquire as they are about to enter into relationships with the opposite sex. Such an interpretation also goes a long way to explaining the ambivalence of Baba Yaga, and how she can never be finally upheld as totally good or evil.
The much-loved tale of Vasilisa the Fair gives us a heroine’s perspective on an encounter with Baba Yaga. Young Vasilisa is sent to the forest by her cruel stepsisters to fetch a light from Baba Yaga’s house in the forest. On approaching the hut, she meets three horsemen, one white, one scarlet and one black; they represent Day, Sun and Night, and they are under Baba Yaga’s command, for she, as many stories about her relate, has power over the winds and weather, sun and moon. Baba Yaga sniffs out Vasilisa’s approach, and offers her a light only on condition that the little girl stays and works for her. The tasks seem impossible, but Vasilisa has an ally – a little magic doll that her mother gave to her as she lay dying. The doll helps her to do the housework, and finally Baba Yaga turns Vasilisa out of the house and gives her the light she requested to take home.
In terms of the lunar cycles and the symbolism of the triple goddess, Vasilisa may be seen as the ‘maiden’ phase of the moon, and her mother as the full moon, who then died to be followed by the black lunar crone. Vasilisa wins the light of her crescent moon back by braving Baba Yaga’s darkness, and earning her respect through hard work and integrity.
Russian lacquer miniature illustrations of Vasilisa the Fair, meeting the Knight of the Sunrise. (Left – Kholui School, Right – Palekh School)
Perhaps Baba Yaga once played a part in coming of age ceremonies for young girls too, and perhaps, too, this is an example of one, although I have not come across any direct mention of this.
Baba Yaga is a figure who stands at the borders of life and death, and as both boys and girls have to die to their childhood in order to enter the adult world, she is an appropriate figure to meet them on the threshold of that transition. She is herself a symbol of death in some old folklore customs; at harvest time, for instance, an effigy of Baba Yaga may be created in straw, and subsequently destroyed. This is said to act as a reminder that the day of reaping and death comes to us all.
In many tales, it is made clear that the witch lives close to the borders of the otherworld. One hero finds her abode right at the end of the earth: ‘A little hut stood there, with no road beyond it, but only darkness so deep that the eye could not pierce it,’ as we are told in the story of The Enchanted Princess’.
Baba Yaga’s territory is already considered to be in the world of ‘the living dead’, known as the ‘thrice-nine land’. This lies far beyond the human realm, and from here one must set out to confront the final boundary to the ‘thrice-ten kingdom’, often understood as the realm of the truly dead. This boundary may be described as the ‘flaming river’ or ‘the blue sea’. In one story, it is charmingly defined as the ‘Currant River’, crossed by the ‘Cranberry Bridge’. Indeed, it is not enough just to reach the boundary, for a means must be found or created to pass over it. In the story of Maria Morevna, Ivan calls up a bridge by waving a magic kerchief, a trick sometimes employed to make it passable. In fairy stories such as this, the hero performs the superhuman feat of going to the‘thrice-ten land’ and returning, perhaps as young men once did symbolically through their ritual ordeals. Baba Yaga has been the catalyst for this.
She also remains a key archetype in Russian mythology, represented not only in stories but in popular rhymes, and in old folk woodcuts, known as lubok. In one famous and often copied lubok, she is depicted as fighting something described as a ‘crocodile’, but which looks more like a furry figure, or a bearded man with a tail. This has been interpreted as representing a political satire on Catherine the Great (the witch) fighting with Peter the Great (the foreigner, and thus the dangerous crocodile). However, as one study points out, both Baba Yaga and the crocodile are designated as guardians of the underworld in traditional lore; the appearance of the so-called crocodile as half human, half furry animal may in fact be a shaman magician. These wizards were real life characters, but were popularly regarded as a combination of beast and man. According to accounts given by the wizards themselves, battles were also traditionally fought between witches and sorcerers, and it may be an old magical battle that we see here.
Whatever the final definition of Baba Yaga, if such a thing is possible, she remains as a figure who can both attract us to the darkness of her mysteries and repel us with her disgusting appearance and unpleasant ways.
References – Image of Ivan and Baba Yaga in ‘Maria Morevna’ from ‘Life in Russia’
Suggested reading on Baba Yaga and Russian myth and fairy tales
Forest of the Vampire (1999) (various authors), (Duncan Baird, Amsterdam).
Haney, Jack V. (1999) An Introduction to the Russian Folk Tale, (M. E. Sharpe Inc, Armonk, New York & England)
Haney, Jack V. (2001) Russian Wondertales (two vols), (M. E. Sharpe, New York).
Hubbs, Joanna (1988) Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis)
Ivanits, Linda J. (1992) Russian Folk Belief, (M.E. Sharpe Inc., Armonk, New York & England)
Johns, Andreas (1998) Baba Iaga and the Russian Mother in The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 42, No. 1.
Krasunov, V. K. (ed.) (1996) Russian Traditions, (Kitizdat,Nizhni Novgorod)
Phillips, C. and Kerrigan, M. (1999) Forests of the Vampire, (Duncan Baird Publishers, London)
Ryan, W. F. (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia,(Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud)
I’ve taken an interest in Tarot cards since I first came across them in the USA, at the age of 19. I was fascinated by their images, and over the following years delved into their meanings and history. When I wrote Tarot Triumphs in 2016, it was a chance at last to put together my research and findings, and to pass on what I had learnt from others too – in particular a unique divination layout called ‘The Fool’s Mirror’.
But it didn’t allow me to share the glorious images of traditional Tarot cards, which range from the opulent gilded cards from the royal courts of Europe, to the crude but vigorous woodcuts sold for popular use. There are many mysteries as to Tarot’s origins, and how it was used – you can find out more in my book – but the images have retained their power through the centuries, and are a colourful set of symbols in their own right.
And so I’m planning a series of occasional posts on Cherry’s Cache, which enables me to share images from my own sets of cards, and from digital resources. Along with this, I’ll post extracts from my book on the individual cards themselves, giving some snippets of their meaning, history and variations of imagery.
I prefer the traditional packs, which have been handed on down through the centuries, and adapted to different countries and cultures. They have a resonance, like traditional folk songs. Their river of time can carry me on its currents, whisper secrets in my ear, and speak to me of its past and future. The symbolism of the 22 Tarot Trumps, as the pictorial cards are known, echoes down through the centuries, if we do but listen to it, connecting us to an ancient way of knowledge.
Each post will put the spotlight on three individual cards – today’s cards are pictured above, in line drawings produced by my husband Robert Lee-Wade for Tarot Triumphs. I’ve allowed the cards to speak in the time-honoured way, simply by shuffling the pack, and using the order in which the cards appeared in, to define the sets of three, rather using the regular numbering of the 22 cards. These are from what is known as the Major Arcana, or the Tarot Trumps; the remaining 56 cards fall into 4 suits like regular playing cards, with one extra court card in each suit.
THE HIGH PRIESTESS(No. 2) The image of the High Priestess, otherwise called the ‘Papesse’ or Female Pope, is very simple in one sense. A woman with a tall headdress sits before a curtain hung between two pillars, holding an open book in her lap. But she has aroused great debate and much learned research among Tarot historians. Does she represent Pope Joan, Isis, Sophia, the Virgin Mary, Faith and the Church, a prophetic Sibyl, a Sorceress or Pagan Knowledge? All have been proposed as candidates, along with a specific historical character, the heretical Manfreda who believed in creating female popes. After fighting my way through this thicket of possible allusions, and appraising their possibilities, I have arrived at the view that this card can best be understood not as one particular figure, but as an embodiment of wisdom and ancient knowledge, symbolised in female form.
In the early Renaissance, for practitioners of philosophical or Hermetic traditions, such a figure of female wisdom was not only acceptable but essential to their cosmology. The headdress and book of the High Priestess were associated with the spirit of ancient teaching, and from that standpoint, she could quite readily have been equated by different interpreters with Mary, Sophia, Isis or the Kabbalistic Shekinah, each of these a feminine representation of wisdom, current in different strands of teaching and thinking at the time. She is not a historical counterpart of the Pope, or a renegade version of the Pope in female form. There is a case though for associating her with ‘Prudence’, a later personification of Sophia, the spirit of Wisdom; some of her attributes – book and triple crown, for instance – can be found in imagery related to Prudence.
So the High Priestess is a teacher of wisdom. And if you go past the trappings, you can also see her as the symbol of contemplation itself. She sits at the entrance to the temple, and is the keeper of its mysteries. In a reading, the card may suggest the need to tap one’s inner resources and to use silence wisely.
THE LOVER (No. 6) The usual version of The Lover clearly indicates a choice: which woman will the young man decide to marry? However, some earlier versions, notably the 15th century Visconti-Sforza pack, show what appears to be a wedding in progress, and in that particular case, the figures are presumed to be Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti. The couple were married in 1441, and the sumptuous set of Tarot cards may have actually been commissioned for their wedding. But the dilemma shown on the prevailing traditional image is not a straightforward, happy union; as with many of the cards, it poses a question for us to fathom.
One common interpretation is that these two ladies represent Vice and Virtue. This is borne out by various emblems independent of Tarot packs, such as the one in Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Comenius (1658), where his illustration no. 109 under “Moral Philosophy” shows much the same picture, with the two women positively tugging the young man in different directions.
But if we take this as a choice to be made, rather than purely a decision over love, it opens the way to broader interpretations. The question of a dilemma still remains at the heart of this image. The Marseilles Tarot version of The Lover (seen at the start of this section) is a masterpiece of cross tensions, within this Y-shaped formation, indicating this agony of decision. Here, Cupid’s arrow points towards the man’s left, and to the fair-haired maiden standing there. The Lover, though, looks to the right, towards the laurel-crowned lady with the severe face. She rests a restraining hand on his right shoulder, her left reaching out to him below, while the pretty girl on the left, in some versions crowned with flowers, touches his heart with her fingers. She looks forward, while Miss Laurel Crown looks straight into the Lover’s eyes. Both seem to say, ‘He’s mine!’
The card therefore may not always be about a relationship, but can also indicate a decision pending, a choice to be made in another area of life. Likewise, it could indicate a matter of choosing a particular path, and sacrificing another tempting way forward, in order to achieve the desired goal. And sometimes, the best choice is really very simple.
STRENGTH (No. 11) The usual Tarot image for ‘Strength’ shows a woman bending over a lion, calmly but firmly opening its jaws. The French name for this this card is ‘La Force’, which means Strength, but not ‘force’ in the English sense of the word. Here, therefore, gentleness triumphs over ‘brute force’, which sets up one of those intriguing Tarot paradoxes: how can a woman tame such a savage creature without using force? Some versions of Tarot cards show this as a woman breaking a pillar in half or a man clubbing a lion, but these are crude allegories by comparison, and, to my mind, miss the point.
To understand this better, we can go back to the cult known as the ‘Mistress of the Beasts’ or ‘Lady of the Animals’. This portrays a woman presiding over wild animals, and in particular lions. Images are found as statues and paintings from ancient civilisations such as Crete, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, where ‘The Lady’ may be seen standing between lions, riding upon a lion’s back, or driving a chariot drawn by lions. There may not be a definite historical link to ‘Strength’ in the Tarot, but it shows that the archetype of woman taming beast resides deep within our culture. It’s also possible that this image derives more directly from the woman jongleurs, the wandering performers who travelled in mixed bands, and whose ‘entertainments’ included showing women taming wild beasts. As I’ve suggested in my book, the troubadours and jongleurs may well have played a part in shaping the Tarot.
The ‘strength’ shown, therefore, overcomes danger through gentleness, patience and persistence. This type of strength works through anything that is not direct force – through confidence, compassion, understanding, or quietness.
The Practice of Meditation By the autumn of this year, 2020, I will have been practising meditation for fifty years. I began as an undergraduate, when I joined a Buddhist class to learn Samatha meditation, which focuses primarily on the breath. Later I changed to a different, Western practice which uses an inner sound as its focus. Meditation itself is subtle, but the most effective practices tend to use very simple methods to help still the mind, paying attention to breath, sound, or an image. There is no striving for effects; the aim is to bypass the ‘busy mind’. Trains of thought, rising and falling emotions, and physical sensations can be acknowledged, but are not dwelt on. We cannot stop these entirely, but we can learn to let them go, and thereby open up to a different, spacious and more inclusive form of consciousness.
‘The essence of meditation is the engagement and holding of a mental object, which can be a sound, image, or movement like walking. As the mind stays with this object it gradually magnetises all the mental movements, flurries of thought and feelings, associative chattering etc. towards a single vector, rather like iron filings turning in one direction. And so random thought activity tends to die down, and settle, not so much around, as near the object, which itself gets finer and finer as does the breath. The seed-object can disappear, or hover on the edge of awareness, and pure consciousness rest within itself like fine wine upon its lees.’
(Tessellations, Lucy Oliver – Matador, 2020, p.51)
In the traditions I’ve studied and encountered, regular practice is crucial, along with an experienced teacher or ‘checker’, at least in the early years, to help you stay on track. Meditation as such can’t really be learnt from books. And it also takes time. My first meditation teacher described the practice as being like a drip, drip, drip of water – a drop a day, perhaps – until the cistern eventually fills up and you have a reservoir. Regular meditation is not exciting or instantly gratifying, although it can and does bestow a sense of calm, and helps to centre one’s being. Over time, though, it becomes a core practice, which can become the quiet centre of your daily life.
I’ve written this brief overview of meditation as a prelude to introducing a more specific and defined kind of practice. This is the Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin: a combination of meditation and visualisation. I suggest though that rather than using it a core meditation practice, it’s perhaps best attempted occasionally, or for short periods. It does not need a teacher as such, and is something that might be rewarding to try, whether you’re already a regular meditator or not. As I’ll outline, it focuses on a female figure – archetype, goddess, spirit of the feminine as you will – that of Kuan Yin.
Spirit of the feminine in meditation
Meditation generally aspires to reach a level of consciousness which transcends male and female differences. But it could be argued that some practices are at least more outwardly orientated to a masculine or feminine approach. So how do you approach a more feminine form of meditation? A few years ago, I was delighted to come across a tradition of meditation which does just that, and is associated with the archetypal figure of Kuan Yin, also known as ‘the universal goddess of compassion’. Since then, I have often practised Kuan Yin Moon Meditation at times when I wish to strengthen my contact with the feminine spirit, perhaps when life has been particularly bruising. ‘She Who Hears the Cries of the World’ is a calming and helpful presence.
Discovering Kuan Yin I first discovered Kuan Yin’s temples when visiting Hong Kong, Penang and Singapore on different occasions. Each one was a feast for the senses, decked in rich, red and gold colours, imbued with the heavy scent of incense, and enlivened by the constant clatter of divination sticks shaken in brass cylinders. The temple is also an oracle, and so it’s possible to ask Kuan Yin personal questions through the 100-stick divination system, each of which has its own interpretation. Here, I watched worshippers young and old, male and female, as they piled fruit and flowers on Kuan Yin’s shrines, and sought her guidance. Later, looking into the mythology of her origins, I found that she is one of the most widely prevalent forms of the divine feminine spirit, who cannot be pinned down to one religion or culture. She slips from Buddhism to Taoism and Shintoism. She has connections both with Christianity, and the ancient religion of Egypt. And, strictly speaking, she is neither a goddess, immortal spirit, nor Madonna, but embraces all these definitions. Her predominant qualities are that of mercy and benevolence.
Kuan Yin’s Meditation The meditation that I share here is a traditional one, based on her long association with the moon and the ocean. (She has other attributes, but these are the most relevant here.) In her Moon form, she represents the waters of compassion, and the gentle light of healing.
This Moon Meditation can be practised without having a particular religious or cultural affiliation. The version that I use comes from the account of an old Chinese nun, who had practised it constantly during her lifetime.* Here, Kuan Yin is seen robed in white, a lady of the seas, who rises above the waves to unite sky and sea, moon and earth. This is the theme of the meditation, where she is invited to shine forth, and – if we’re lucky – bring comfort and wisdom to our hearts.
Practising Kuan Yin meditation may be particularly appropriate at certain times in our lives. For women, it may be when we long to re-connect with a tender, intimate version of the feminine spirit. For men, the practice of opening the heart via the feminine spirit can help to awaken subtle emotions. For both, the practice can be consoling in times of need. And beyond the personal level, the aim of this meditation is to help generate compassion for the good of all our fellow human beings.
Here is how I’ve formulated this ancient practice, and taught it to others in accordance with modern needs:
The meditation can be practised for between ten minutes and half an hour, but I suggest you aim for something shorter to begin with. It’s suitable for practising either within a group, with someone who can lead it from stage to stage, or else as a personal contemplation, where you go at your own pace. It’s necessary to conduct it in a quiet place, which is likely to be in a room indoors, although the traditional instructions suggest it can also be done on a hilltop, or under an open sky. Do everything gently: no forcing, just allowing. You are activating this sequence, and envisaging images as needed, but in a spirit of gentle calmness.
Sit quietly, with your eyes closed, and let your mind go still. Release any thoughts or images, and gradually glide into neutral. Relax the breathing, until it finds a natural, unhurried level.
Now let your internal gaze rest on an empty expanse, as if on a dark, empty sky, or as if you are looking into darkness before your eyes adjust to what is there. This might sound difficult, but is quite easy in practice, and you only need to hold this for a few seconds.
Then, something comes into view. You can now see the sea in front of you, and you witness the moon rising above in the night sky. The moon bathes the sea with a soft brightness, rippling with little silver-topped waves. Allow yourself to gaze now at the moon, and to feel calm and happy. Give this a few minutes to develop.
Then observe how the moon is getting smaller, but brighter. It becomes so bright and so small that it reduces to a dazzling pinprick of light, a radiant tiny pearl in the night sky. Then this seed of light begins to grow, and, as it does so, it becomes the figure of Kuan Yin herself. She stands tall against the sky, robed in gleaming white. Around her head is a halo of light. Her feet float on the crest of the waves.
Kuan Yin smiles, and you feel her affection, love and compassion. Allow yourself to rest in her presence. You can allow emotions to arise and fade away again, like the lapping of the water. Let the meditation take its course: Kuan Yin may stay with you for a long time, or just for a brief spell. As she leaves, your image of her gets smaller and smaller until she vanishes, along with the sea and the sky. All that is left is space. Relish this space; become a part of it, and know that you are not separate from it.
As with all meditation practices, it’s advisable to make a definite ending, but to do so calmly and slowly. Now return gently to sensing your body; observe your posture, and allow sensation in your limbs. Then open your eyes, and collect yourself, body and mind. If it seems appropriate, offer thanks for the experience.
*The original description of this meditation is contained in Bodhisattva of Compassion: the Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin, John Blofeld (p.124 in my edition).
Other References The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion, by Stephen Karcher Kuan Yin: Myths and Revelations of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion, by Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay & Kwok Man-Ho The Meditator’s Guidebook: Pathways to Greater Awareness & Creativity, by Lucy Oliver; see also her website ‘Meaning by Design’
Having acquired White Lead, do the work of women, that is: COOK
‘Do you cook supper sometimes? If so, you’re an alchemist.’ This usually produces a response of surprised delight, when I open a talk on alchemy this way. Many people are drawn to old alchemical imagery, as the psychologist Carl Jung pointed out, but the process and practice of alchemy through history can seem very obscure and mysterious. The aim of my first book on alchemy, Alchemy: The Great Work was to clarify its history and significance, and it has been in print now in one form or another for over thirty years. My second book Everyday Alchemy took a different approach and asked the question: how we can ‘make gold’ in our own lives? For this, I took a sequence of alchemical emblems from Michael Maier’s book Atlanta Fugiens, published in 1617, and suggested ways in which we can use alchemical knowledge to enrich and transform our personal experience. Cookery turned out to be a very useful way of doing this!
Like alchemy, it is both art and science – it requires attention and ingenuity, as well as knowledge and skill. Cookery is magical, creative and indeed unpredictable process as it endeavours to turn raw ingredients into an appealing and attractive finished dish. Who, after all, hasn’t lamented a culinary failure, or rejoiced over a stylish and delicious success?
So what I’ll do here is to weave some pictures into edited extracts from the book, along with an easy and delicious recipe to finish. In the current days of lockdown in Britain, many more people have turned to baking. It’s comforting and creative, and although there’s a shortage of some ingredients, you may often find that you have what you need in the cupboard if you pick a recipe that’s not too complex.
From Chapter Three of Everyday Alchemy
Cooking – Is it really Alchemy?
Strangely enough, cooking is a very good way to appreciate how alchemy works. It is one of the best examples of transformation that we have in everyday life. But it is not just a mechanical process – remember that no alchemy is complete without conscious participation. We need to give it attention, even when the work is repetitive. This way, the transformation can proceed at every level, not just in the saucepan.
But what is transformation itself? The word comes up again and again in alchemy, so I need to take a deep breath and try to penetrate its meaning. Here is an example; it is simple, and comes from the humble kitchen, but it is true alchemy.
A few weeks ago, I decided to make some bramble jelly. It was late summer, and the days were sunny and mellow. There is a patch of wild blackberries just over my garden wall, and I picked and ate them practically every day, often just stewing them up with apples. Then I wanted to do something different, to keep the flavour of summer berries in my store cupboard through the cold months of winter ahead. I followed the recipe by cooking the blackberries in water, then straining them overnight through a canvas jelly bag. The slow drip resulted in a litre or so of a clear, dark liquid, to which I added sugar and then boiled it up. The temperature of the heat is crucial; first it must be gentle, to dissolve the sugar without burning it, and then brought up so that it is high enough to reach the ‘setting point’, the temperature at which the jelly will set. Some jellies and jams will be ready in a few minutes, while others take up to three quarters of an hour. Recipes are only a guide: the cook must be very watchful, because it’s impossible to predict exactly how long it will take.
You must also pour it into warmed glass jars before it sets completely. If the jars are not warmed, they may crack. If the jelly is taken off the stove too soon, you’ll have a runny mixture, and if you leave it too long it will become too rubbery and the flavour will alter. Fortunately, in my case the result was a translucent jelly, of a beautiful dark ruby colour. The pots stand in my cupboard; the berry has been transformed into a new substance, but the jelly nevertheless retains the beauty of the blackberry, and the delicacy and tang of its taste. And this jelly can be kept for months, unlike the berry that rots so quickly on the bush.
Bramble jelly became my triumph of domestic alchemy, the ‘gold’ achieved from three simple ingredients – berries, water and sugar – and transformed through the agency of fire. The jelly contains the essence of blackberry. The berry has lost its original form, but through this sacrifice, its essence is released and is embodied in a new and purer form. In alchemy, the death of the ‘body’ must occur, which then liberates the soul and spirit; these in turn find a home in a new ‘glorified’ body.
It is extraordinary to think that the humble blackberry and jelly making can be seen in such mystical terms, but true transformation has taken place. Transformation is a change of state, a process by which the whole person or substance is changed.
A modern version of ‘cooking the trout’ mentioned in the emblem above – although such instructions were usually deeply symbolic, rather than literal. In fact I think this was a sea bream we were about to eat here.
True cookery is a creative process. Cooking transforms the ingredients, whereas food fixing, or assembling, on the other hand, simply combines them into – let’s say – a tuna mayo sandwich, or a prettily presented raw salad. With cooking, there is always an element of risk that something will go wrong – the mayonnaise will curdle or the cake sag. Science may say that results can be replicated if you start with exactly the same ingredients and work in exactly the same conditions. But when is this ever possible? Who can fully predict the final taste of wine that is being made? The variables, such as the weather conditions, the state of the soil and so on, can be assessed to some extent. But perhaps there is more to it than that. After all, no one grape is ever exactly the same as any other grape. No two people are identical. The very fact of existing at a different meeting point of time and space creates differences between people, plants, or raw materials. And this is not perceived as a simple causal effect, but is tied into the alchemical view that the cosmos itself has a conscious life.
‘This whole Cosmos…is full of Life. And there is nothing therein, through all Eternity, neither of the whole nor of its parts, which doth not live. For not a single thing that is, or has been, or shall be in this Cosmos, is dead.’
The Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus
( From Chapter Three of Everyday Alchemy)
So, get to it, and enjoy your cooking forays! Here is an easy and super-delicious recipe from the Queen of Baking, Mary Berry, along with some notes I’ve made when cooking this. It’s comforting and simple. Remember – cooking is flexible and even though we might need to start off with exact recipes, there’s often scope for improvising. Bara Brith is a kind of Welsh tea-bread. But there are many versions of this recipe across the British Isles– in Ireland it’s known as Barm Brack. Bringing this even closer to alchemy, you might like to try an Irish Halloween Barm Brack, ‘complete with ring for love and a coin for wealth’. https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/food-and-drink/recipes/the-perfect-traditional-irish-barmbrack-1.2842588.The essential part of the process for all these recipes seems to be soaking the dried fruit in tea for a few hours beforehand, or overnight. But the Irish twist in this recipe is to add a drop or two of whisky!
From ‘Mary Berry’s Baking Bible’
With notes by Cherry Gilchrist
Bara Brith (Speckled bread)
175g (6 oz) currants
175 g (6 oz) sultanas (Fruit could be varied – cranberries and raisins should work too)
225 g (8 oz) light muscovado sugar (Dark should be fine)
300 ml ( ½ pt) strong hot tea
275 g (10oz) self-raising flour (or add baking powder – soda in the USA – if you only have plain flour. I calculate this at scant 2 tsp)
1 large egg, beaten
(Option to add a little spice – eg 1 tsp mixed spice, or 2 tsp cinnamon and/or a little powdered ginger)
Measure the fruit and sugar into a bowl, pour over the hot tea, cover and leave overnight. (If you make a big enough pot, this will give you an excuse to sit down with a strong cuppa afterwards.)
Pre-heat the oven to 150 degrees C/ Fan 130C. Lightly grease a 900 g (2lb) loaf tin then line the base with baking parchment
Stir the flour and egg into the fruit mixture, mix thoroughly, then turn into the prepared tin and level the surface.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 1 ½ hours or until well risen and firm to the touch. (Don’t skimp on the timing. It will be moist whatever you do, just about, but if it comes out too early it may be ‘sad’ and a little heavy in the middle). A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out, peel off the parchment and finish cooling on a wire rack. Serve sliced and buttered.
Related books by Cherry Gilchrist:
Alchemy: The Great Work (also published as The Elements of Alchemy and Explore Alchemy) This is a concise and accessible history of alchemy, and explains how alchemists attempted the process of transforming base matter into gold.
Everyday Alchemy(also published as The Alchemist’s Path) is a personal guide to using the process of alchemical change in everyday life.It is currently out of print, but used copies are normally available from internet sellers like Amazon or Abe Books. We hope to organise a reprint and/or e-book edition in due course.