Deep Philosopher: Return of the Vampire Squid

The vampire squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, is an old friend around these parts: besides featuring in a synchronicity, it has various attributes that make it a particularly Haunted Shoreline-type creature – for the details, see this previous post. One of its most notable characteristics is that it dwells in regions of the ocean far deeper than those inhabited by any similar creature – places where no light penetrates at all. In fact, until very recently, nobody knew how it managed to stay alive- because nobody knew what it ate. Other cephalopods live in shallower waters and are carnivorous, preying on fish, molluscs, and crustaceans. But none of these are present in significant quantities in the pitch-black regions where V. infernalis makes its home, so quite what it does for nourishment has been an enduring puzzle of marine biology.

So I was intrigued to read that a study team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, California, have solved the mystery. Their findings are presented in Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences), in a paper with the splendid title “Vampire Squid: Detritivores in the Oxygen Minimum Zone“, freely available here (link opens as .pdf). The work was also given considerable publicity beyond the rarefied realm of the academic press (see here and here, for example), the key finding being that V. infernalis sustains itself by feeding on ‘marine snow’, a picturesque term for the detritus of the ocean- dead plankton, algae, fragments of shells and carcasses, faecal matter, and the like.

In other words, the vampire squid survives by transmuting dead and decaying base matter into the very stuff of life itself.

It is therefore…  an alchemist.

A Tentacled Triptych

I haven’t updated for a few weeks, and to fully explain events on the Shoreline during this period requires me to indulge in that most English of pastimes: talking about the weather. Recently the country has basked in a mini-heatwave, as all media outlets have styled it. To me it seemed like a regular heatwave, just one that didn’t last that long. But what do I know?

Prior to that, however, UK readers will recall that it rained. And rained, and rained, and rained. In fact for several weeks the Shoreline- and most of the rest of the country- experienced near-continual rain. During this time, the sea roiled and churned, and I wondered what would come up from the depths.

Some three weekends ago, the rain stopped abruptly and, yea, the Sun shone on the south coast. This lasted only an hour or so before the deluge resumed. But in that hour, your correspondent, seizing the moment, got himself down to Saltdean beach as the tide was receding, to see what the rains had brought. And there I found a multitude of cuttlebones; one is pictured above.

Cuttlebones are the remants of dead cuttlefish. In the living creature this structure forms a hard internal skeleton of sorts. It is not, strictly speaking, bone, being made of aragonite (a calcium-based mineral). Non-beachcombers may have seen cuttlebones for sale as bird treats: apparently our feathered friends like nothing better than to peck at a nourishing, calcium-rich dried cuttlebone, suspended at feeding height.

The cuttlefish is, like our old friend the vampire squid, a cephalopod, and I immediately realised that this was yet another manifestation of the tentacled face, following on from the vampire squid and the belemnites. A triple whammy. What do they want, these slithery visages? Why do they keep looming up from the depths and sticking their tentacles in my face? I felt sure there was more to come, and resolved to investigate further on future visits to the beach.

In the meantime, I consulted one of the Shoreline oracles, Chevalier and Gheerbrant’s Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, a book I’ve often mentioned here. It has only a short entry on the cuttlefish, in which it mentions a myth of the Nootka Indians, of Vancouver. The story is set in prehistory, before Man had understood how to make fire. At this time, the myth relates, the cuttlefish was the master and guardian of fire, and humans only began to have control of fire after the deer stole it from the cuttlefish, and gave it to Man (why the deer chose to do this is not recorded, and I have not been able to find any more on this legend from other sources). But how could the cuttlefish mind the fire while in the depths of the ocean? It turns out it wasn’t a problem- at this time, the myth states, the cuttlefish lived on both land and sea- just like our old friend the mudfish. In other words it was, like the mudfish, a liminal creature… a Shoreline creature.

I have written here about the dangers of stretching Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious too far, and I am not sufficiently fanciful to wish to draw a line between the fire myths of the Nootka Indians and the beaches of East Sussex. But if I were… if I were… if we go with it, and allow that the cuttlefish is a symbol of fire, the cuttlebones washed ashore at this time could be the answer to a conundrum that has often struck me as I walk the Shoreline…  the fact that the beach is where Earth, Air, and Water meet.. but there is no Fire. If the cuttlebones represent Fire, then their appearance on the shore means that all the elements are in place for the alchemical process.

But that would, as I said, be fanciful…

.. so what else was there to glean from this tentacled triptych of Shoreline happenstance?

Some obvious associations presented themselves… H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos… Kenneth Grant… yes… but there was, I felt certain, more to come, and when at length the rains desisted, I enlisted my 7 year-old daughter as assistant on another beachcombing walk at Saltdean.

“We’re looking for faces with tentacles on them”, I informed her breezily as we descended the stone steps to the beach. “OK Daddy” she said, taking it in her stride as children do. Then a moment later, “Daddy! Look!

She pointed in astonishment at the stone wall of the sea defences.

There was a row of these faces, each one heavily tentacled, graffiti’d in chalk on the wall.

We pondered… laughed… I took photos. Then we moved off and wandered the beach, inspecting likely-looking pebbles and prodding the long-suffering anemones in the rockpools. When home called, we retraced our path, back past the sea wall, and I had a last look at the chalk faces. Only this time, I was standing on the other side of the wall, so they were the other way up.

Like this:

Somewhat Tintin-esque.. and this is, let’s face it, almost certainly how they were in fact drawn, and how they were intended to be viewed.

Begging the question… does the appearance of the ‘tentacled face’ thus become somehow invalidated?

Well… it all depends how you look at it, doesn’t it?

A Fistful Of Thunderbolts

More fossils this week: these are belemnite fragments gathered from Peacehaven beach.

Belemnites seem to lag some way behind their (perhaps more aesthetically appealing) cousins the ammonites in terms of public affection, or at least recognition- most people seem to have heard of ammonites, anyway. But it may be necessary to briefly explain what a belemnite is, or was. They were sea-dwelling creatures that lived in the Mesozoic era (which began about 250 million years ago, and ended about 60 million years ago). Like ammonites, belemnites were cephalopods: squid-like creatures- indeed they were probably distant forebears of our old friend the vampire squid. Unlike modern squid, though, they had an internal skeleton- a hard elongated ‘guard’, fossils of which are common coastline finds. Go here and here to learn more, and to see some specimens rather more impressive than the ones pictured above.

Information on belemnite fossils in Sussex seems scarce- I have no idea which species are found in this locality, and am unable to say much more about these finds from that point of view. So let’s get down to Shoreline business, and consider their mythic and esoteric import.

I’m intrigued to see the website of London’s famous Natural History Museum devoting pages to fossil folklore– when did they start doing that I wonder?- and here’s their lowdown on belemnites:

Because of their pointed shapes, it was once believed that belemnites were cast down from the heavens during  thunderstorms. This gave rise to their widely used name, thunderbolts.

There’s more on this here– some key extracts:

Belemnites are traditionally associated with thunderstorms and have many differing traditional names usually along the lines of thunderbolts, thunder-arrows or thunderstones. It was common folklore throughout Europe that these cylindrical bullet shaped fossils were cast down from the heavens as lightning, hit the ground and turned to stone. If one was struck by lightning it was believed that one had been struck with a thunderbolt.

The widespread nature of the association between belemnites and thunderbolts is illustrated by this:

In Russia belemnites are referred to as thunder-arrows, or gromovye strelki. Similarly in Lithuanian mythology belemnites are referred to as Pekuno akmu or Pekunas’ stone, Pekunas being the Thunder God and often compared to the Norse god Thor. It was also a traditional Germanic belief that to keep these thunderstones at home would afford the owners home from protection from lightning, and in parts of the Netherlands these donderstenen (Donar’s stones, Donar being the Thunder god) were kept in the roof. 

And there’s more still here, in the 1911 paper “Snakestones” and Stone Thunderbolts as Subjects for Systematic Investigation by the redoubtable W.W.Skeat- an article we’ve consulted before, when considering ammonites, and which also contains much of interest regarding belemnites:

At Whitby, according to Robinson, the term thunderbolt applied to “the petrified remains of a kind of cuttle-fish, in the Whitby Lias, resembling tubes of various lengths and thicknesses tapering to a point.” The comparison here made between the “thunderbolt” of this kind and a tube is not quite accurate, since a tube is generally considered to be hollow, whereas these fossils are, with the exception of a small and shallow cavity at the upper end, perfectly solid, and may be more suitably compared to a cigar than to a tube. I may add that the Greek Belemnon, whence they get their name, means dart or javelin, and is connected with the verb “ballein,” to cast….  in J. Walcott (1779) we read that “the Belemnite receives its English name thunder-bolt from the vulgar, who suppose it to be indeed the darts of heaven.”

It’s also recorded that belemnites were used in medicine. Eye problems in horses were apparently treated by belemnites, ground into dust and blown into the unfortunate beast’s eyes. This is the sort of thing that’s worth bearing in mind the next time you hear someone waxing sentimental about the wisdom of the ancients, or similar.

In Lithuania, belemnites were held to be effective against snakebites- an interesting parallel with ammonites. In view of the significance of snakebites in Shoreline mythopoiesis, it would be noteworthy if both of these fossils, commonly found along this coast, were invested with belief in protective or healing properties thereof. But the only mention I can find of belemnites as snakestones is that reference to Lithuania. It would be interesting to know if this kind of belief was more widespread.

I would also be intrigued to learn whether the common association between belemnites and thunderbolts was ever a feature of Indian mythology or folk superstition. Because if so, this would directly link the belemnite with the vajra, the thunderbolt of the gods in Hindu cosmology:

The vajra often appears as a divine weapon or attribute in depictions of Hindu deities, or in the tales about them.  Most significantly, the Rig Veda describes the first vajra being made for Indra, the hero. Indra then uses it to slay the serpent Vritra, which had brought drought to India by blocking the rivers (there are echoes of the story of Apollo and Python here).

So if the belemnite-as-thunderbolt trope can be extended to the Vedic myths, then we have another nexus of folk belief linking belemnites with the vanquishing of serpentine evil.

This would be of particular personal interest to me. I became interested in the symbolism of the vajra as long ago as 2003, when on a trip to San Francisco I saw this sculpture in the Asian Art Museum:

I have looked at many examples of Indian deity sculpture, but this one had a particular charge about it, and a powerful sense of grace and motion. Her name is Vajra Tara – ‘Thunderbolt Tara’- a particular manifestation of the goddess Tara, in feisty mode and fully tooled up with fiery vajra thunderbolts.

And, in fact, as I stood there before her, the goddess cast a thunderbolt directly at me. It lodged in my third eye, and it’s still there. But that’s another story for another day.

Vampire Squid From Hell

These things are called Silly Bandz. They are dayglo elastic bands that stay put in a particular shape –  when not being stretched, obviously- but that stretchability means they can also be worn as bracelets. And in this fact lies their extraordinary popularity with children, or at least with my observational sample (my 7 year old daughter and her -mostly female- friends).

In researching this post I visited the official Silly Bandz website and was part-appalled, part-dazzled by the company’s ability to think of so many ways of persuading young children that their lives will be enriched by novelty rubber bands. (Whatever your philosophical or cosmological standpoint, you’ll find it hard to argue against the existence of Absolute Evil once you’ve seen this.)

The Bandz pictured above are sea creatures, obviously, but I wasn’t quite sure what the yellow fellow in the centre of the picture was meant to be. I asked my daughter.

“Either a jellyfish, or a vampire squid,” she asserted.

A vampire squid?

“Yes, really Daddy, we did it at school”.

“A vampire squid? Does it drink blood?”

“No, it just looks like a vampire”.

Pause.

I was baffled.

“Are you sure you didn’t see it on Scooby Doo?” I asked. (She is a big fan of Scoob).

She tutted. “No, Daddy, it’s real“.

Another pause.

“Scooby Doo’s a cartoon“, she added helpfully.

I made a mental note to check up on this ‘vampire squid’ thing next time I was online.

Later, at the PC, I logged in to Gmail and WordPress, as I always do at the start of an online session. As many readers will know, the front page of WordPress is dominated by a feature called “Freshly Pressed”, which showcases a selection of current blog posts, and is presented as a kind of day-to-day ‘best of’ the nearly half a million blogs that WordPress currently hosts. Things that seem to get featured a lot on Freshly Pressed include: travel blogs, visual arts blogs, food blogs, blogs about blogging, pet blogs, and “10 Sayings My Irish Grandmother Taught Me”-type blogs. I usually scan this selection briefly before going into my own account, but I rarely click any of the links.

On this occasion, however, my eye was drawn to a striking thumbnail image of an octopus. Clicking it, I found myself on an art blog showcasing the work of one Mark Penxa, and from there I went to the artist’s own site – which, as you’ll see if you follow that link, has a number of menu options. For no reason I can identify- not even a hunch- I chose ‘Sketches’, then ‘Sketchbook 2009-2010‘. There, among other creatures, was the octopus I’d seen earlier- and next to it was…

…some sort of squid…

…that looked oddly like…

… a vampire.

In fact it looked like this:

As you can see  the artist has rendered its body as a heart. A terrific image. I googled the equally juicy Latin name: Vampyroteuthis infernalis (‘vampire squid from Hell’). And yes, it’s a real creature.

Some facts about the vampire squid:

1. It owes its barbarous name to an unusual webbing that connects its ‘arms’, which gives it the appearance of wearing a Dracula-style cape. That, and its reddish-black colour. (Slightly disappointingly, it doesn’t actually drink blood.)

2. It is thought to be the only surviving member of an ancient Order. A taxonomical Order, that is. The other creatures that have been classified as belonging to this group are all extinct, and known to us only from fossils.

3. It lives in the murky depths. In fact the depths it inhabits aren’t just murky, they’re pitch-black: it spends its time 2000-3000 metres below the surface, where no light penetrates at all. No other cephalopod is found at such depths.

So while this particular synchronicity was of the offbeat, almost comedic variety, there were nevertheless obvious resonances with the Shoreline current. But there was something else too. I’d recently been taking an interest in the work of the British occultist Kenneth Grant, someone I’d previously dismissed as a wild fantasist, perhaps even psychotic. Discussions with Dr Champagne of English Heretic, exposure to the English Heretic album Tales of the New Isis Lodge (based on Grant’s life and writings), and this typically passionate and brilliant piece by Alan Moore all combined to make me take a second look.

Dissecting the vampire squid

I had originally planned to write a potted biography of Grant here, but I am no expert on him and would simply be recycling information readily available elsewhere (you could start with this sympathetic obituary, or this drily sceptical one). Regarding his writing, there is an informative primer available as a free pdf from Starfire Publishing, custodians of his work and legacy. But the appeal of his written work is summed up beautifully by Alan Moore:

As fascinating and as ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress, what shall we make of Kenneth Grant? I know few occultists without at least a passing interest in his work, and I know fewer still who would profess to have the first idea what he is on about. What he is on. To open any Grant text following his relatively lucid Magical Revival is to plunge into an information soup, an overwhelming and hallucinatory bouillon of arcane fact, mystic speculation and apparent outright fantasy, as appetising (and as structured) as a dish of Gumbo. The delicious esoteric fragments tumble past in an incessant boil of prose, each morsel having the authentic taste of magic, each entirely disconnected from the morsel which preceded it… The onslaught of compulsive weirdness in Grant’s work is unrelenting… a hot shrapnel of ideas, intense and indiscriminate. A shotgun full of snails and amethysts discharged point blank into the reader’s face.

So much of this article cries out to be quoted- read the whole thing. And note that “..giant squid in a cocktail dress..” line. That is what made me think Kenneth Grant! when the vampire squid coincidence/synchronicity occurred.

In fact, it may not have been that specific line that caused that inner bell to ring (despite its similarity to the actuality of the squid in the billowing cape), because I’ve been reading a fair bit about Grant recently, and almost invariably there is mention of slithering tentacled creatures and the like, Grantworld being very much that kind of place. “The tentacled face is a typically Grantian motif” notes this excellent piece by Phil Legard, which also mentions one of Grant’s most celebrated/notorious passages, from his book Hecate’s Fountain, an apparently straight-faced account of bizarre goings-on in a derelict Welsh chapel:

…  one of Grant’s most memorable rituals, culminating as it did with a priestess dressed as a butterfly giving oral sex to the priapic manifestation of a Mayan bat god… and whatever you may think about Grant’s work, that’s a pretty striking image.

Quite.

It’s hard to know how to follow that, but in all the excitement I mustn’t forget to show you the octopus picture that led me to the squid. This is also by Mark Penxa, and as well as the image itself, I very much like the phrase that floats around it…

… which, in both its intensity and its paradox, could almost be a slogan for the Shoreline itself.

Lodestones of Antivenom

G.I. Gurdjieff taught his followers that their lives were deterministic, that human beings do not truly act, with volition and agency, but instead simply react. Indeed he went further, asserting that the entire cosmos proceeds in largely mechanistic fashion. But he also taught that, at the interface of two opposing forces, there arises a third: something produced by the tension, something alive, that has the potential to escape the inexorable laws of determinism. It is at this interface, this Shoreline, that life has the potential to become real, conscious, willed, as opposed to the ‘waking sleep’ that, for Gurdjieff, is our default mode.

The Shoreline is a liminal threshold. In an earlier post I described it as ‘the margin of land and sea, Consciousness and the Unconscious, Reason and the Irrational’. It is the Space Between, the ‘grey area’ of paradox, uncertainty and ambiguity, the alchemical flask in which sulphur and mercury meet, the tension between them unresolved and in dynamic flux.

The ‘mighty elemental forces that seethe and squall around the Shoreline’ (from another previous post) are no less than the forces of life and death. (The Shoreline is not merely about survival, however- its paradoxical nature embodies all the tensions of the human condition. In its fusion of elemental forces it even achieves a vivid eroticism, one that has passed into art, literature, and everyday conversation and thought. An example would be the image of a stormy sea, used so often to signify a tumult of erotic romance that it has become a cliche. There are many other examples). As we have seen, the great wheel of life and death is symbolised by Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its tail, signifying renewal and recurrence. But if ‘recurrence’ is not to be simply an endless loop, a cosmological Groundhog Day, then change and novelty must somehow be introduced, and elsewhere on this blog I have argued that this is the esoteric meaning of the egg of Ouroboros.

We have also seen that the cosmic serpent has its Shadow: and what is the Shadow of life itself? Death, obviously. The dual aspect of the serpent is precisely this: life and death. And here on the Shoreline we have recently seen a dramatic example of the dark side of the snake.

It is therefore reassuring to find that the Shoreline has mightily impressive defences against snakebites. The photo at the top of this post is a giant ammonite on Peacehaven beach, one of many to be seen there. These are not the kind of fossils you can take home and put on your mantelpiece: not unless you have stone-cutting powertools, a winch, and a truck (and a very large mantelpiece) – and if you do have these things, you still shouldn’t do it- there are, quite properly, restrictions on the removal of specimens from Peacehaven. And who knows what might happen if the Shoreline were to be denuded of these talismanic colossi?

Because in myth and folklore, ammonites are snakestones. That is, they were believed to offer protection against snakebites. The wonder of the worldwide web allows me to commend to you this paper from 1911, which explores folk beliefs from around the British Isles regarding fossils, and has plenty on the ammonite-as-snakestone. It appears that in some versions of this legend, ammonites  themselves were thought to be coiled, petrified (and headless) snakes. Having been turned to stone by the powers of the local saint (their heads falling off in the process), through sympathetic magic they became protective against snakebites- this may have involved ammonites being worn or carried as amulets, or used as a medicinal intervention if a bite had already occurred (e.g. by being rubbed against the wound, or ground into a medicinal drink). There are further re-tellings of saint-and-snakestone legends here.

The giant ammonites of Peacehaven are examples of the genus Parapuzosia, and are among the largest found anywhere on the globe. You can learn more about the fossils and geology of Peacehaven here, an excellent site whence I pinched the picture below, which shows three of Peacehaven’s largest Parapuzosia ammonites on their rock ‘pedestals’:

Like bulwarks they stand against the blind fury of the cosmic serpent- and the wanderers, shamans, scribes and servants of the Shoreline breathe a little easier for their presence.