The Feather Of Maat


The final beach walk of 2013 yielded this curious piece of driftwood, which immediately struck me as haunted, crackling with life. I photographed it in situ on the beach, but only after I had picked it up and turned it around did I see what it was.


A feather – and given the recent return of Ancient Egyptian themes to the Shoreline, in the person of the crocodile-headed god Sobek, I was able to recognise it as (or, if you prefer, I decided on a whim to call it) the Feather of Maat.

Maat was an Egyptian goddess associated with truth, virtue, and justice.


The Feather of Maat was involved in the Weighing of the Heart, which, according to the prevailing religious myths of Ancient Egypt, was an essential stage of the journey into the afterlife. The heart of the deceased was placed on the scales and weighed against the Feather as a test of purity.



Here we see the heart on the left scale, the feather on the right, the weighing being conducted by our old friend Anubis, Guardian of the Shoreline (and we have previously considered the Weighing itself too, when meditating on the scarab stone).

If the heart weighs the same as the feather, the deceased may progress, journeying through the gates of the afterlife towards Aaru, paradise.

But if the heart fails the test, it will be devoured by Ammut, and the deceased will be condemned to remain in Duat, the underworld.

I decided to weigh the wooden ‘feather’. Remarkably, it weighs 21 grams – the precise figure
claimed by the eccentric turn-of-the-century Massachusetts physican Duncan MacDougall to be the mass of a human soul. MacDougall’s experiments (which involved weighing dying patients before and after death) were bizarre and unscientific, but the notion of 21 grams as “the weight of the soul” has persisted as a trope in popular culture, most recently in the 2003 film called simply “21 Grams”. Remember, to pass the Weighing, the soul must weigh exactly the same as the feather. So make what you will of the fact that this driftwood totem weighs 21 grams.

That aside, the Weighing of the Heart is an apposite image for this particular time – because, as I type, we are, here in the UK at least, in the first minutes of 2014, standing uncertainly at the threshold of past and future. Around the world, in private or public, people are hoping for better, replenishing their optimism, wishing each other well, and swearing oaths and promises, resolutions for the perilous journey ahead. Will we make it to Aaru, or find ourselves lost in Duat (again)?

Good luck, as you face your own personal reckoning at the turning of the year. You may need it.


The Great God Pan: Machen on the Moor


Last month I went to Devon for a couple of weeks, spending most of that time wandering the fastnesses of Dartmoor. The photo above was taken at Lydford Gorge, a beautiful wooded valley traversed by the river Lyd. The river’s course through the gorge includes a dramatic whirlpool known as the Devil’s Cauldron – see here for more on the gorge and its flora and fauna. And ‘fauna’ is an apposite word for the satyr-like simulacrum above, which immediately brought to mind Arthur Machen, the mystical Welsh author of The Great God Pan.

Arthur Machen, 1863-1947

Arthur Machen, 1863-1947

Although Machen’s name was very familiar to me, being regularly bandied about by writers I read and people I know, at the time of discovering the face of Pan in the bole of a Devonian tree I had not actually read any of his work. I have rectified that now, reading The Great God Pan and another, slightly later, novella, A Fragment Of Life. It is not my intention to summarise these stories here, but they share some common elements: the idea of a mysterious realm existing beneath the surface of, or at some odd angle to, everyday reality, and a thinly-veiled eroticism based around the eerie, magical qualities of natural places, particularly woodlands. At the risk of upsetting his admirers (a category that probably includes most of my regular readers) I did not think The Great God Pan was well written – I especially disliked the dialogue: the (barely developed and virtually interchangeable) characters do not so much engage in conversation as inflict ponderous, plot-explicating soliloquies on each other. A Fragment of Life impressed me far more and I highly recommend it. But however uneven some of the writing may be, both stories successfully conjure a heady, charged, paganistic atmosphere that stays with the reader long after.

But before all that, before settling down to read, I took (inevitably) to the internet to learn more about Machen, and came across the Friends of Arthur Machen website, which includes a number of illustrative quotes from Machen’s writings. I was struck by this one, taken from The Hill Of Dreams..

On this summit oaks had grown, queer stunted-looking trees with twisted and contorted trunks, and writhing branches; and these now stood out black against the lighted sky.

.. because it sounded exactly like another place I had visited on Dartmoor: Wistman’s Wood.

Wistman’s Wood is a curious, otherworldly place: a collection of dwarf oaks, situated at high altitude (by the standards of southern England) in the heart of the moor, and accessible only by footpath. The dwarf oaks do indeed have twisted and contorted trunks, and writhing branches



A great deal of sinister folklore clings to Wistman’s Wood: even its name alludes to these associations, being derived from a local dialect word, wisht, meaning ‘eerie’ or ‘haunted’. Among other things, the wood is said to be infested with poisonous adders, to be haunted by a range of spooks and spirits, and to have been a Druids’ grove, depending on which particular legend you favour.  Perhaps the most striking tale is that of the Wild Hunt, a procession of ghostly horses and demonic riders accompanied by a terrifying pack of hellhounds. The Hunt is said to set out from Wistman’s Wood and ride across the moor by night, seizing unwary travellers and carrying them off to the infernal realms. Legends of the Wild Hunt persist, with local variants, in many European countries – see here for more.

Another Wistman’s Wood story is that when darkness falls, the dwarf oaks come alive as malevolent anthropoid figures. If you are there at twilight, as I was, it is easy to see how such legends have developed – as the light fades, some of the trees do indeed take on an oddly humanoid appearance:


All in all, Wistman’s Wood is a decidedly Machen-esque place – you can read more about its myths and legends here – and it seemed a perfect match for the queer stunted oaks quote above. And after some Googling, I discovered that in his story A Fragment Of Life, Machen even mentions a place called Wistman’s Wood. The story’s protagonist, Edward Darnell, works as a city clerk, but finds himself drawn inexorably towards a kind of hallucinatory nature mysticism. He delves into old family documents, trying to understand what is happening to him:

Here, then, he read of the Holy Well, hidden in the Wistman’s Wood — Sylva Sapientum — a fountain of abundant water, which no heats of summer can ever dry, which no flood can ever defile, which is as a water of life, to them that thirst for life

This wood, mentioned only once in the story, is located in Wales, from where the fictional Darnell (like the real-life Machen) originates. But I wonder- did Machen take the name Wistman’s Wood from the actual wood on Dartmoor? I would be intrigued to know whether anyone has made this connection before, and I hope that readers more familiar with Machen’s work may be able to enlighten me on this point.

So my sojourn in Devon had repeatedly brought me into contact with Machen, and the kinds of entities and atmospheres that pervade his writing. The great god Pan is earthy, animal, an avatar of mischief, lust, and rising sap. And I was soon to discover, on returning home to East Sussex, that the Shoreline had something to say about all that. But that’s another story, for another day.


The Saint and the Serpent


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:


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.


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.



An Easter Egg


After the previous post I hadn’t planned to write anything more regarding Easter this year, but the Shoreline had other ideas: during a short, bracing walk on Saltdean beach on Easter Sunday (short and bracing because it was the coldest Easter day ever recorded in the UK), my 8 year old daughter found this impressive greyish pink stone ‘egg’. The biting cold defeated my attempts to photograph it in situ on the beach, but we brought it home to add to the ever-growing Haunted Shoreline Cabinet of Curiosities, and here it is. Not for the first time, an image alone cannot quite do it justice, as the ovoid appearance is accentuated by its remarkable smoothness, but until such time as this blog is available in sensurround format (in glorious Psychedelic Omnivisionof course), you’ll have to take my word for that.

For obvious reasons, eggs are symbols of fertility, but their esoteric symbology goes well beyond that. We have previously considered the egg of Ouroboros, the cosmic serpent, while in alchemical texts the term Philosophic Egg, or similar, is used as a kind of shorthand for the physical vessels (flasks, alembics) within which the alchemical process unfolds: the container within which the Philosopher’s Stone is gestated.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, eggs appear frequently in Surrealist artworks. They are a recurring trope in Dali’s work (see also here), appearing in many of his paintings,  and the Dali Museum-Theatre in Figueres, Spain, is festooned with giant eggs. For the purposes of this post, the Dalinian image which seems to me most relevant is his 1943 painting Geopoliticus Child Watching The Birth of the New Man:

Painted during WWII while Dali was living in the USA, it is commonly interpreted as a representation of the growing strength of the US as a new world power- certainly this seems to fit, although the esoterically-minded will also note the appearance of a World Egg. To what extent Dali was deliberately referencing alchemical imagery is unclear, but it is a device that recurs in his work- indeed here you can see Dali himself, together with his wife and Muse Gala, being ‘birthed’ from a large egg in a typically outlandish piece of… well, let’s just call it performance art. I am unsure of the date of this film but it is clearly a lot later than the painting above- I would guess it is from the late 1960s, well into Dali’s self-promotion period (see my previous thoughts on that here) and, to me at least, of considerably lesser interest, but the near-identical symbolism is nevertheless worth noting.

Two Surrealist artists who were more explicitly informed by alchemy were Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. In her essay Down Below, Leonora Carrington describes the egg as “..the dividing line between Great and Small, which makes it impossible to see everything at once“. The dividing line– that is, the liminal threshold, akin to my interpretation of the Shoreline.

Here are a couple of striking egg-related works by Leonora Carrington; firstly Ab Eo Quod, from 1956:


The magnificent golden egg is the centrepiece here, but as usual with Leonora, the whole canvas bursts with enigmatic imagery. The Latin inscription on the chair back reads Ab eo, quod nigram caudam habet abstine terrestrium enim decorum est. I am indebted to Susan Aberth’s book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art for the information that this is excerpted from a 14th century alchemical text known as the Ascensus Nigrum,which by my reckoning translates as the “the ascent of blackness”, presumably a reference to the transmutation of base matter which is the heart of the alchemical process. The inscription itself translates as something along the lines of “Keep away from that with a black tail; this is the beauty of the Earth”. Whatever this may mean, it seems to relate to the bizarre creature that lurks beneath the table, its black, frond-like tail curling around the room.

In The Giantess, or Guardian of the Egg (1947), the egg is, by contrast, rather small..


.. but then, so is everything else in comparison with the towering central figure, which can be readily interpreted as a goddess form, guarding the more usually male-dominated Hermetic mysteries.

Leonora’s sometime lover Max Ernst, meanwhile, was infused and informed by esotericism throughout his life, and this early work of his, The Inner Vision: The Egg (1929) appears to make direct reference to the Philosophic Egg:


…and the birds preparing to hatch from it are readily recognisable as representations of Loplop, Ernst’s oft-depicted avian familiar and totemic guide. So this image would appear to refer to Ernst’s own creative processes: his inner alchemy.

But returning to where we started- while my daughter was certainly rather proud of her discovery of the stone egg, it would probably be fair to say that, for her, the egg that held the most fascination this Easter was this one:


As parents out there will be aware, Kinder Surprise eggs are chocolate eggs that contain small plastic toys- often of a pleasingly bizarre nature. By now, my mind whirling with alchemico-surrealist egg images, I was almost as anxious as her to see what would hatch from this particular egg. And once the chocolate shell was breached, this is what we found within:


I wasn’t immediately sure what it was (although she knew straight away)- but it came with a nametag, in Latin, no less: Vulpes lagopus, and a quick Google confirmed her insistence that it was, therefore, an Arctic fox.

Which, in view of the extreme cold, seemed to make perfect sense.

A Sorcerous Angle


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.