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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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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