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.

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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 Spirit Of Christmas

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From 1958 to 1976, Salvador Dali, commissioned by a large company, designed an annual Christmas card. The example shown above is from 1971, and might have been designed specifically for the Haunted Shoreline: the dangerously erotic siren appears to be arising from the very shoreline itself, an avatar of the liminal. What better image than this to bestow the compliments of the season on all who pass by this place. And do take the time to peruse the rest of Dali’s festive greetings cards, along with some background information, here. Season’s greetings to you all.

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:

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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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The Great God Pan: Machen on the Moor

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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

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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:

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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.

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