The Star in the East

star1

East Sussex, that is.

This is what I found on my Christmas day beach walk. I’ve never found a starfish on this stretch of coast before – it seems reasonable to assume the current stormy weather has churned the sea to a degree that creatures that usually live on the sea bed are being washed ashore. And as ever, the Shoreline is topical:

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. (Matthew 2, 9-10).

Pondering the founding myth of Christianity led me to recall this recent piece from Stuart Inman in the surrealism-related Arcturus Journal, which draws threads between surrealism and certain forms of Gnosticism. I was particularly struck by this quote:

The divine light is actually a human light that has been stolen, not from the gods, but from us by religion.  Thus Prometheus returns to us what is ours.

And in this spirit, here is another way of looking at the star:

Leonardo-da-Vinci-Vitruvian-Man_cropped

The Head Of Sobek

sobek2

As the year comes to a close amid violent midwinter storms here on the south coast, it’s a fitting time to tie up the threads of recent posts and bring the blog up to date with developments on the Shoreline. In the previous post I wrote about the appearance of the Great God Pan while I was away on Dartmoor. Pan is an avatar of male lust and potency, the masculine (pro)creative. So it was intriguing that, on a twilight beach walk some weeks after returning home, I found this large piece of flint washed up in a rockpool. Now, this is of course ‘just a rock’, not any kind of fossil. But the signs are always there and this rock’s striking resemblance to a crocodile head…

sobek1

.. immediately put me in mind of the crocodile-headed Egyptian god, Sobek:

sobek1a-rs

And here’s a more, erm, contemporary take on Sobek:

Sobek - Large_cropped

As with other deities of Ancient Egypt, the nature and degree of veneration accorded to Sobek, and the properties and significance attributed to him, varied between different centres and periods. However, the common thread is that Sobek is a fiery, violent, masculine force, associated with war and turmoil. In times of conflict, you want him on your side. In times of calm, it may be necessary to placate him to keep the peace.

A manifestation of Sobek, following hard on the cloven hooves of Pan, is therefore something of a double whammy. It seems to me to suggest a switch in the alchemical polarity of the Haunted Shoreline. Hitherto the female principle has generally been to the fore: consider the Wombstone, the mermaid’s purse, the numerous appearances of the female surrealist and embodiment of female Hermeticism, Leonora Carrington. But these recent developments seem to indicate a change in the flow of the mythic tide.

What this means, or what should be expected, I do not know, but as I sit here typing on one of the wildest, stormiest nights I can recall, in the Shoreline’s etheric current there is something swirling, coalescing, taking shape.

Head_of_Sobek

The Great God Pan: Machen on the Moor

great_god_pan2

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

ww1

ww4

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:

ww2

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.

great_god_pan

Nameless Guests

ghost1

It is rare for me to feature something synthetic rather than stone or organic. This was not a deliberate decision from the outset: it’s just that there seems to be truth in them there stones, more than in them plastic gee-gaws. Perhaps this is unsurprising. But here is an exception – this is a small plastic ghost my daughter found washed ashore recently (all the photos of it came out this badly, and then the cat batted it under the oven). Initially I thought it might be some tiny piece of Ghostbusters-related merchandise but, upon Googling, saw that it bore far less resemblance to anything in Ghostbusters than I’d initially imagined. It remains unidentified, one of a number of curious minor characters to wash up on the Shoreline of late.

The remaining oddballs presented here are a succession of stony visages. Together they form a set of quirky, nameless bit-part players. No great deities or demons these: unremarkable creatures in fact, flotsam entities drifting in on the tide of Being.

One could see the first as a frog, the second as a seal…

stone_frog

nameless1

stone_face

… and a friend remarked of the third that it could plausibly represent Makka Pakka reacting to being sacked from In the Night Garden (go here if that reference baffles you). Maybe so – and, in fact, popular childrens’ TV characters may well have the kind of mythic power with which I try to infuse the fruits of my beachcombing. But psycho-alchemical analysis of preschool TV seems a flight of fancy too far, even here.

Only recently did it strike me where I had seen such figures before. It is not so much that there is direct physical resemblance, but they have something of the same mien and aura as the figures in Max Ernst’s Feast of the God.

Max Ersnt, 'Feast of the God', 1948

Max Ernst, ‘Feast of the God’, 1948

And it seems an appropriate time to now assemble this motley crew and present them here, because the phrase feast of the god neatly describes recent events on the Shoreline. Stay tuned: these events will be recounted in upcoming posts, in which the glitter prism gaze of psychedelic omnivision will be turned upon them, and they shall give up their secret meanings.

ernst_edit

The Saint and the Serpent

church_view1

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:

dragonslayer

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.

stm19002

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.

queen

king