The Saint and the Serpent

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Time and tide wait for no man. Three whole months have passed without activity here, leading one correspondent to wonder if the previous post was in fact a veiled suicide note. Not the case: I continue to haunt the Shoreline – in corporeal form, I hasten to add – and have over the last few months accumulated a motley collection of notes and photographs, which may or may not manifest as future posts. Before any of that, however, I want to pick up the threads of this post, and continue exploring St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean.

As I noted before, the church boasts a number of stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne Jones, formerly a resident of the parish, and made by William Morris – see picture above. Of particular interest here is the panel depicting St Margaret of Antioch, the saint to whom the church is dedicated:

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Being a godless heathen, I knew virtually nothing about St Margaret, but after a little research my nervous system was once again charged with the eerie tingle of synchronicity – in fact, make that synchronicities, plural. Because it turns out that the story of Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of the local parish church – just a few minutes’ walk from the beach – has multiple resonances with the themes of the Haunted Shoreline – the Shoreline current. To begin, there’s the fact that in Greek and Eastern Orthodox tradition, Margaret was known as Marina, a name that clearly links her to the sea. But it goes a lot further than that…

Firstly: Margaret is said to have slain a serpent or dragon. The Burne Jones window shows her vanquishing this demonic creature – in fact, almost every existing pictorial depiction of Margaret  shows her in the act of triumphing over a fearsome mythical beast: sometimes transfixing it with a lance as above, sometimes striking it with a hammer, sometimes standing or riding on it. In some versions of her legend, she is said to have been swallowed whole by the creature, escaping death when the crucifix around her neck proved so unpalatable to the monster that it vomited her out unharmed, splitting itself apart in the process. Here there are echoes of Apollo and Python, and more broadly of the serpent motif that has reared its fanged head here repeatedly, in both benevolent and baleful aspects.

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Secondly: she is the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth, topics previously manifest on the Shoreline through the ‘wombstone’ and the ‘seed pod’, not to mention the beach find that pointed me towards the church in the first place, the ‘mermaid’s purse’ eggcase.

Thirdly: she is said to have been put to death, martyred, by being beheaded. Grisly and brutal, but entirely in keeping with the decapitated dolphin washed ashore at Saltdean, and the acephalic fixations of our old friend (or maybe fiend?) Georges Bataille.

The Martyrdom of St. Margaret of Antioch, altar frontal from the Convent of Santa Margarida de Vilaseca, Spanish School, 12th century

A bumper bundle of coincidences, then, and a curious set of findings given that this whole quixotic Shoreline project is a kind of experiment in creating – and, indeed, inhabiting – a mythography of place: a particular type of engagement with the subtle influences that permeate this locale. As ever, I make no claims at all regarding truth or consequences, but were I so inclined, these discoveries could readily be seen as vindication of the Shoreline method and process: confirmation that the swirlings of the Shoreline current are indeed reflections of the deeper patterns embedded here in place and psyche.

There is plenty of material online regarding Margaret of Antioch: if you wish to know more about this saint and the legends attached to her, there are good starting points here and here.

One further strange discovery in the Rottingdean church is worth documenting here. On either side of the building’s entrance arch are two stone faces: one male, one female. I can find no documentation of these, but they look remarkably like the king and queen of alchemical symbolism. In the absence of any other information, I simply leave you to gaze upon them.

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A Sorcerous Angle


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On April 27th I’ll be speaking at this free event hosted by Goldsmiths College, University of London. The day will bring together a range of artists, writers, and performers, including old friends of the Shoreline English Heretic and Mark O Pilkington, writer Ken Hollings, artists Dean Kenning, John Cussans, and Lisa Cradduck, and writer and activist Mark Fisher. The loose theme of the day will be that of a documentary format for the performances and presentations, alluding to a (now largely defunct) style of high quality investigative reporting exemplified by 1970s TV current affairs shows  such as Weekend World or World in Action (Channel 4’s Dispatches might be the closest thing we have to this today). It remains to be seen how the various participants will interpret this remit, although don’t necessarily expect them to take it too literally.

Your correspondent will be speaking early on in the day, which starts at 1pm (so get there early, ya  slackers). My talk will present a potted summary of my Shoreline perambulations and investigations, showcasing the mysterious forces swirling around the stretch of the East Sussex coastline that I choose to call the Haunted Shoreline. And there’s a nice thematic link with another scheduled talk: writer, historian and all-round good egg Antony Clayton will also be talking about events on the Sussex coast – his most recent book Netherwood details the last days of that dastardly fellow Aleister Crowley, which were spent at a Hastings guesthouse called, you guessed it, Netherwood- Tony’s meticulous research into the story of the house itself is interwoven with, and is every bit as interesting as, his recounting of the Beast’s twilight years there (I’m not an admirer of Crowley, though he is undoubtedly an intriguing and thought-provoking figure, and some engagement with his life and work is pretty much unavoidable for anyone interested in esotericism).

There are more details of the event here and here. In my ‘day job’, which I don’t write about here, it is not unusual for me to give talks in an academic setting, but this will be the first time that the liminal tides of the Shoreline have rolled into academia’s hallowed halls. Hope to see some of you there.

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Heavy Metal

Here is the latest object of wonder to wash up from the depths at the psycho-alchemical arena of Saltdean beach – a large lump of oxidised iron ore embedded in stone, which I found at the edge of the tide, right on the very cusp of the Shoreline. I say ‘lump’- as far as I can ascertain the correct geological term is ‘nodule‘- any geologists reading are welcome to confirm or correct this. The whole thing is about the size of a tennis ball cut in half, but what the picture can’t communicate is the weight, the impressive heft of it. That will have to wait for such time as technology permits an immersive virtual reality version of the blog. In the meantime, just know that it’s heavy.

Here’s the other side of it…

.. and from this angle you can see that it is partially pyritised – that is, iron pyrite, a sulfide of iron commonly known as ‘fool’s gold’, has formed. There are little speckles of this ‘gold’ over the lower part of the nodule, and in the lower right-hand part it has formed distinctive ‘rays’, like a nascent version of the ‘pyrite suns’ sold by fossil and gemstone stores – see below for an example.

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Now, iron is one of the ‘base metals’ of alchemy, and here we have iron in the process of turning to ‘gold’. So, an example of the transmutation of metals? Come off it, you say- it’s fool’s gold. Isn’t it meant to be, you know, actual gold? In fact, couldn’t we interpret this find as a damning indictment of all this alchemical shenanigans, this quixotic quest for transformation and truth? Doesn’t our iron nodule seem to say- yeah, there’s gold at the end of that cosmic rainbow, alright.. but it’s the gold of fools… so if you’re a seeker, you’re a sucker.

However, as we noted before, in esoteric (as opposed to exoteric) alchemy, the goal is nothing so vulgar as material wealth- rather, the ‘gold’ that the alchemist seeks is a metaphor for some inner transformation. The words used to express what this is will vary between times and cultures and need not detain us- what interests me here is the symbolism of fool’s gold itself. Specifically, the figure of the fool.

The Fool is the first Major Arcanum of the Tarot, and is numbered 0 (not 1 – we’ll come back to that). If the Major Arcana represent a journey, then the Fool is its protagonist and starting point, and here we see him embarking on his quest. In fact it appears he is about to step off a precipice, oblivious to the danger of being dashed on the rocks below. The usual interpretation is that this represents the leaving of the terra firma of Reason, and with it the step into the unknown that begins the Fool’s adventure. Foolhardy indeed it may be, but without this step, there can be no journey through the spiritual realm (or the labyrinth of Being, or the levels of consciousness, or whatever form of words you want to use).

But while the journey may have a starting point, it has no end- because the Fool’s path will eventually lead him back to the beginning. He may be wiser, but he he is still a Fool, and must undertake his quest again, and again, and again…

Here there are obvious parallels with the Ouroboros, symbol of renewal and recurrence. As we noted above, the Fool is said to correspond to the number 0 – and what better symbol for this circular path? Indeed, what better symbol for the beginning of things- the Void from which Manifestation arises.

Standing on the precipice of the clifftop at Saltdean, looking out to the seas that call my name, I have often felt like the Fool I undoubtedly am…

.. . and this being the Haunted Shoreline, there was a strange synchronicitous twist to this remarkable find. Walking back from the beach, my eye was caught by another gleaming piece of metal, lying on the pavement as I neared home:

A squarish piece of metal, about the size of a postage stamp, with some frayed black rubber hanging off it. It looks like it might have come from a tyre – franky, I have no idea what it is. But note the letters ‘Fe’ embossed on the corners. Fe, of course, is the chemical symbol for iron. As I turned the strange silver square around in my fingers, the iron nodule seemed to burn in my jacket pocket, and the wind whispered a song of the Uncanny.

Indeed this little metal square looks rather like the images typically used to illustrate the elements of the periodic table- see here, for example. However, the other characters embossed upon it do not accord with this: 10 is not the atomic number of iron (that would be 26), and then there is the large ‘X’ in the centre- although this could just be another rendering of 10, X being the Roman numeral for 10. But ten what? The ten magical grades… the ten spheres of the Tree of Life.. the ten green bottles hanging on the wall?

Who knows? A man can drive himself mad trying too hard to extract meaning from (or impose meaning upon) the matrix of strangeness that causes things like this to wash up, and after a while I stopped racking my brains over it, and simply acknowledged that this particular Mystery was too baffling for this particular Fool.

But I can, I think, suggest a meaning for the iron nodule with which we began.

If the Fool is the perennial seeker, then we might feel able to say that fool’s gold is, paradoxically, the true alchemical ‘gold’ of inner attainment, thus turning the earlier interpretation on its head. Certainly anyone approaching our nodule of pyrite in a spirit of worldly avarice will be disappointed: its ‘gold’ is worth little in material terms, and will indeed make a fool of anyone who tries to become rich from it. But when the Shoreline Wanderer turns the hallucinated gaze of psychedelic omnivision upon this latest find, he seems to see, through veils of Mystery, glimmerings of Truth – sparkling and radiant like the stars.

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?

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.

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.