The Mudlark

On my most recent visit to Peacehaven, I came across the mysterious object pictured above, washed up in a rockpool.

Closer inspection…

…revealed it to be a length of weighty, heavy-duty metal pipe, closed at one end, encrusted with mud, pebbles, barnacles, wormcasts and discolouration. A synthetic-organic hybrid. One finds many such hybrid artefacts washed up on the beach… on the Shoreline… at the interface.

The pipe was packed full of mud and pebbles. I tipped it all out, a great thick clag of mud emerging in a slow, swampy ooze. And there in the middle of it, something stirred. Gingerly I probed the mud with a piece of driftwood- and this is what I found:

A mudfish (a live one) of some sort (what sort, exactly, I have no idea- any mudfish experts out there are cordially invited to share their expertise in the comments).

Readers should rest assured that, after a brief photo session, the mudfish was returned to its tubular home along with plenty of mud (I felt safe in assuming that mudfish like mud), though not enough to seal the pipe again, the whole then being replaced in the rockpool to prevent it drying out, and to await the incoming tide and fresh adventure. But what did it all mean?

Renewal has been a recurrent (appropriately enough) theme here on the Shoreline- see for example the discussion of Ouroboros. This latest beach find can also be seen as a symbol of rebirth. In some parts of the world, mudfish demonstrate an unusual behaviour termed aestivation (or estivation in American English). Aestivation is similar to hibernation, except that hibernation is a device for escaping the coldest season, whereas aestivation occurs in the warmest. In the case of the mudfish and its relatives, such as lungfish, the fish burrows into mud and there it hibernates.. sorry, aestivates… through the dry season, re-emerging when the weather is wetter and the conditions more suited to it.

Here are some lungfish demonstrating how it works (image from here):

Aestivating mudfish are found in Australia and New Zealand, and parts of West Africa- and in the ancient myths of  indigenous Australasians, as well as among the tribes of Togo and Benin, one finds that the mudfish was a potent symbol of rebirth: indeed it seems to have been believed that such fish were literally able to return from the dead. As such, when mudfish deities appear, they are accorded major cosmological significance. Art and Religion in Africa, by Rosalind Hackett (partly freely available on Google books), has this to say about the self-resurrecting mudfish deity Butan, venerated by the Batammaliba people of Benin:

The earth and the underworld.. not to mention pregnancyhow the Shoreline’s  music echoes, how resonant its crescendoes… and, of course, it is now Easter. Could there be a more appropriate time to contemplate the deep symbology of resurrection and rebirth?

But before we chalk up one more headpsinning synchronicity to the Shoreline, some caution may be indicated.

As far as I can ascertain, the only cultures that have adopted the mudfish as a symbol of rebirth are – unsurprisingly- those cultures arising in the geographical locations where mudfish do indeed aestivate. And- again as far as I can ascertain- the humble British mudfish does not. Why would it? It never gets hot and dry enough here to warrant it. So is it a leap too far to imagine that folk beliefs from Benin can relate to a creature washed ashore in East Sussex?

Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious might be called upon here, but it may not help us. The idea of the collective unconscious, in its simplest form, is that there is a collective wellspring, or reservoir, of concepts and their symbols or motifs, which recur across time and cultures. For example: the archetype of the Hero- it is easy to imagine that some concept of the Hero, and the Heroic, has existed in many times and places, and that we may find common features in the various cultural expressions of this archetype. But is is hard to apply this reasoning to myths or symbols which, by their nature, relate only to certain places (cultural memes can spread, of course, but I know of no reason to suppose that the mudfish myths have done so). Can the symbolism of the mudfish that is (or appears to be) reborn have any traction, hold any key to gnosis, in a place where mudfish do no such thing (and no such thing has ever been believed)?

Regardless of our answer to this, there are other meanings we may assign to this fish, and the manner of its finding. Given my recent comments regarding the Shoreline as liminal threshold, it is pertinent to mention that the mudfish is itself described as a liminal creature: not only because of the death-rebirth dynamic, but because it is a creature of both land and sea. But be warned. Our old friend The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art has this to say:

Admittedly, a Sussex mudfish is no more likely to bring death through electric shock than it is to be ‘reborn’ through aestivation. Yet there is a further meaning here, that relates more directly to the Shoreline. And it is simply that this lowly mudfish, dwelling in its canister of muck that washed up from the depths, was then brought to light, made visible, by the Shoreline (in the person of your correspondent, acting in accordance with the current).  Which is precisely what the Shoreline is all about- plumbing the depths and exploring the murk through underwater psychonautics, and keeping a keen eye on the creatures that wash up, blinking on the sunlit shore.

But let’s return to the resurrection theme. What if, by releasing the fish from its cylindrical prison, I saved it- brought it back from death? After all, it presumably isn’t meant to live in a metal tube- would it have been trapped in there, would it have been able to burrow through all those pebbles impacted in all that mud? Or not? Would the incoming tide have simply released it by washing out the pipe? Or not?

Walking home, I contemplated the magnitude of this. I looked to the heavens for answers, but the skies were inscrutable.

Traversing the clifftop, I paused, and slowly and deliberately drew sea air into my lungs, tasting the honeyed sweetness of Mystery.

Happy Easter from the Shoreline.

4 responses to “The Mudlark

  1. Pingback: A Tentacled Triptych | The Haunted Shoreline

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