The Feather Of Maat

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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.

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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.

Maat

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.

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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.

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The Star in the East

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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:

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The Head Of Sobek

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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…

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

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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.

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Nameless Guests

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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…

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… 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.

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The Sound Of Sirens

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Edward Burne Jones, “The Sea Nymph”, 1881

For some time I have been thinking of mermaids. These alluring creatures embody many aspects of the current which animates the Haunted Shoreline, and there is also a strong local connection: the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne Jones lived on this stretch of coastline, at Rottingdean, for the last 18 years of his life, and while residing here he seems to have been rather preoccupied (perhaps even haunted) by sea sirens, which appear in many of his paintings of this period (the wonderfully named blog The Kissed Mouth has an excellent post on this topic).

However, in order to be faithful to the spirit(s) of this adventure, I decided to delay writing about mermaids until such time as the Shoreline itself gave me a sign to proceed. And so it came to pass: I did not, alas, find an actual mermaid washed ashore, but I did find this:

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This is an egg case, probably from a dogfish or ray (anyone able to identify the precise species is invited to get in touch through the comments), but the relevance here comes from the name given to such egg cases in folklore… mermaid’s purses. 

The Shoreline having spoken, I headed into Rottingdean village, to St Margaret’s Church, which has a number of stained glass windows by Burne Jones (more on these in a future post) and memorial stones for the artist and his wife Georgiana set into the church wall:

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I was told that nobody is sure whether Burne Jones is actually buried there- “probably his ashes” said the vicar. What is not in doubt is where he lived: he and his wife purchased two adjoining houses, Prospect Cottage and Aubrey Cottage, opposite the church, and later acquired a third – this last was called Gothic House, but the couple renamed it North End House, apparently in reference to North End Road, Fulham, where they had lived prior to their move to the coast (also, the house is the most northerly of the three). All these buildings still stand:

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Left to right: Prospect Cottage, Aubrey Cottage, North End House

The blue plaque on Prospect Cottage:

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So what it is about mermaids? Of course there is an erotic element, but it is an ambiguous eroticism: the mermaid, after all, is sexually unattainable, for obvious anatomical reasons. As such, she may be the epitome of the goddess/temptress dichotomy: able to drive men mad with a desire that can never be sated. But more than this, she is a liminal creature, simultaneously of both the visible human world and the unknowable occult depths (for previous consideration of liminal creatures- that is, Shoreline creatures, see here and here).

Regular readers will know that Surrealist, rather than pre-Rapaelite, art is the house style here at the Shoreline- there are many reasons for this, among them the fact that Surrealism was explicitly concerned with the threshold between the seen and unseen, the daytime world of waking consciousness and the dark dreamzone of the Unconscious, the land and the sea… the Shoreline. So here I present a few Surrealist mermaids. The first, by Andre Masson, is particularly apposite, as it was produced by the process of automatic drawing, one of the key Surrealist techniques for allowing the contents of the Unconscious to cross the liminal threshold and emerge into daylight:

Sirens 1947 by André Masson 1896-1987

Andre Masson, “Sirens”, 1947

That scoundrel Salvador Dali, meanwhile, painted an idiosyncratic vision of The Little Mermaid for a 1966 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, which I haven’t included in this post as it seems such an inferior example of his work, but it can be seen here. Instead I much prefer this, from 1939, in which Dali’s depiction of the mermaid’s dangerous eroticism appears to anticipate future trends in fetishwear:

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Salvador Dali, “Masked Mermaid in Black”, 1939

Finally something from one of the Shoreline’s presiding goddesses, Leonora Carrington – in fact I have posted this painting before, when I mused on the fact that the progression of colours, black-white-red, refers to the three stages of alchemy. But some things bear repeating:

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

Now returning, like the Fools we are, to where we began- it may be of note that another folkloric name for a dogfish egg case, a mermaid’s purse,  is devil’s purse. For not only can the mermaid torment a man with impossible desire, she may also drag him to his doom. Plunging into the hazardous waters of love, a man may be utterly undone, as Burne Jones’ most famous mermaid image, The Depths of the Sea (1881) illustrates. I leave you to ponder it, and ponder it well.

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