Vampire Squid From Hell

These things are called Silly Bandz. They are dayglo elastic bands that stay put in a particular shape –  when not being stretched, obviously- but that stretchability means they can also be worn as bracelets. And in this fact lies their extraordinary popularity with children, or at least with my observational sample (my 7 year old daughter and her -mostly female- friends).

In researching this post I visited the official Silly Bandz website and was part-appalled, part-dazzled by the company’s ability to think of so many ways of persuading young children that their lives will be enriched by novelty rubber bands.

The Bandz pictured above are sea creatures, obviously, but I wasn’t quite sure what the yellow fellow in the centre of the picture was meant to be. I asked my daughter.

“Either a jellyfish, or a vampire squid,” she asserted.

A vampire squid?

“Yes, really Daddy, we did it at school”.

“A vampire squid? Does it drink blood?”

“No, it just looks like a vampire”.

Pause.

I was baffled.

“Are you sure you didn’t see it on Scooby Doo?” I asked. (She is a big fan of Scoob).

She tutted. “No, Daddy, it’s real“.

Another pause.

“Scooby Doo’s a cartoon“, she added helpfully.

I made a mental note to check up on this ‘vampire squid’ thing next time I was online.

Later, at the PC, I logged in to Gmail and WordPress, as I always do at the start of an online session. As many readers will know, the front page of WordPress is dominated by a feature called “Freshly Pressed”, which showcases a selection of current blog posts, and is presented as a kind of day-to-day ‘best of’ the nearly half a million blogs that WordPress currently hosts. Things that seem to get featured a lot on Freshly Pressed include: travel blogs, visual arts blogs, food blogs, blogs about blogging, pet blogs, and “10 Sayings My Irish Grandmother Taught Me”-type blogs. I usually scan this selection briefly before going into my own account, but I rarely click any of the links.

On this occasion, however, my eye was drawn to a striking thumbnail image of an octopus. Clicking it, I found myself on an art blog showcasing the work of one Mark Penxa, and from there I went to the artist’s own site – which, as you’ll see if you follow that link, has a number of menu options. For no reason I can identify- not even a hunch- I chose ‘Sketches’, then ‘Sketchbook 2009-2010‘. There, among other creatures, was the octopus I’d seen earlier- and next to it was…

…some sort of squid…

…that looked oddly like…

… a vampire.

In fact it looked like this:

As you can see  the artist has rendered its body as a heart. A terrific image. I googled the equally juicy Latin name: Vampyroteuthis infernalis (‘vampire squid from Hell’). And yes, it’s a real creature.

Some facts about the vampire squid:

1. It owes its barbarous name to an unusual webbing that connects its ‘arms’, which gives it the appearance of wearing a Dracula-style cape. That, and its reddish-black colour. (Slightly disappointingly, it doesn’t actually drink blood.)

2. It is thought to be the only surviving member of an ancient Order. A taxonomical Order, that is. The other creatures that have been classified as belonging to this group are all extinct, and known to us only from fossils.

3. It lives in the murky depths. In fact the depths it inhabits aren’t just murky, they’re pitch-black: it spends its time 2000-3000 metres below the surface, where no light penetrates at all. No other cephalopod is found at such depths.

So while this particular synchronicity was of the offbeat, almost comedic variety, there were nevertheless obvious resonances with the Shoreline current. But there was something else too. I’d recently been taking an interest in the work of the British occultist Kenneth Grant, someone I’d previously dismissed as a wild fantasist, perhaps even psychotic. Discussions with Dr Champagne of English Heretic, exposure to the English Heretic album Tales of the New Isis Lodge (based on Grant’s life and writings), and this typically passionate and brilliant piece by Alan Moore all combined to make me take a second look.

Dissecting the vampire squid

I had originally planned to write a potted biography of Grant here, but I am no expert on him and would simply be recycling information readily available elsewhere (you could start with this sympathetic obituary, or this drily sceptical one). Regarding his writing, there is an informative primer available as a free pdf from Starfire Publishing, custodians of his work and legacy. But the appeal of his written work is summed up beautifully by Alan Moore:

As fascinating and as ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress, what shall we make of Kenneth Grant? I know few occultists without at least a passing interest in his work, and I know fewer still who would profess to have the first idea what he is on about. What he is on. To open any Grant text following his relatively lucid Magical Revival is to plunge into an information soup, an overwhelming and hallucinatory bouillon of arcane fact, mystic speculation and apparent outright fantasy, as appetising (and as structured) as a dish of Gumbo. The delicious esoteric fragments tumble past in an incessant boil of prose, each morsel having the authentic taste of magic, each entirely disconnected from the morsel which preceded it… The onslaught of compulsive weirdness in Grant’s work is unrelenting… a hot shrapnel of ideas, intense and indiscriminate. A shotgun full of snails and amethysts discharged point blank into the reader’s face.

So much of this article cries out to be quoted- read the whole thing. And note that “..giant squid in a cocktail dress..” line. That is what made me think Kenneth Grant! when the vampire squid coincidence/synchronicity occurred.

In fact, it may not have been that specific line that caused that inner bell to ring (despite its similarity to the actuality of the squid in the billowing cape), because I’ve been reading a fair bit about Grant recently, and almost invariably there is mention of slithering tentacled creatures and the like, Grantworld being very much that kind of place. “The tentacled face is a typically Grantian motif” notes this excellent piece by Phil Legard, which also mentions one of Grant’s most celebrated/notorious passages, from his book Hecate’s Fountain, an apparently straight-faced account of bizarre goings-on in a derelict Welsh chapel:

…  one of Grant’s most memorable rituals, culminating as it did with a priestess dressed as a butterfly giving oral sex to the priapic manifestation of a Mayan bat god… and whatever you may think about Grant’s work, that’s a pretty striking image.

Quite.

It’s hard to know how to follow that, but in all the excitement I mustn’t forget to show you the octopus picture that led me to the squid. This is also by Mark Penxa, and as well as the image itself, I very much like the phrase that floats around it…

… which, in both its intensity and its paradox, could almost be a slogan for the Shoreline itself.

Lodestones of Antivenom

G.I. Gurdjieff taught his followers that their lives were deterministic, that human beings do not truly act, with volition and agency, but instead simply react. Indeed he went further, asserting that the entire cosmos proceeds in largely mechanistic fashion. But he also taught that, at the interface of two opposing forces, there arises a third: something produced by the tension, something alive, that has the potential to escape the inexorable laws of determinism. It is at this interface, this Shoreline, that life has the potential to become real, conscious, willed, as opposed to the ‘waking sleep’ that, for Gurdjieff, is our default mode.

The Shoreline is a liminal threshold. In an earlier post I described it as ‘the margin of land and sea, Consciousness and the Unconscious, Reason and the Irrational’. It is the Space Between, the ‘grey area’ of paradox, uncertainty and ambiguity, the alchemical flask in which sulphur and mercury meet, the tension between them unresolved and in dynamic flux.

The ‘mighty elemental forces that seethe and squall around the Shoreline’ (from another previous post) are no less than the forces of life and death. (The Shoreline is not merely about survival, however- its paradoxical nature embodies all the tensions of the human condition. In its fusion of elemental forces it even achieves a vivid eroticism, one that has passed into art, literature, and everyday conversation and thought. An example would be the image of a stormy sea, used so often to signify a tumult of erotic romance that it has become a cliche. There are many other examples). As we have seen, the great wheel of life and death is symbolised by Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its tail, signifying renewal and recurrence. But if ‘recurrence’ is not to be simply an endless loop, a cosmological Groundhog Day, then change and novelty must somehow be introduced, and elsewhere on this blog I have argued that this is the esoteric meaning of the egg of Ouroboros.

We have also seen that the cosmic serpent has its Shadow: and what is the Shadow of life itself? Death, obviously. The dual aspect of the serpent is precisely this: life and death. And here on the Shoreline we have recently seen a dramatic example of the dark side of the snake.

It is therefore reassuring to find that the Shoreline has mightily impressive defences against snakebites. The photo at the top of this post is a giant ammonite on Peacehaven beach, one of many to be seen there. These are not the kind of fossils you can take home and put on your mantelpiece: not unless you have stone-cutting powertools, a winch, and a truck (and a very large mantelpiece) – and if you do have these things, you still shouldn’t do it- there are, quite properly, restrictions on the removal of specimens from Peacehaven. And who knows what might happen if the Shoreline were to be denuded of these talismanic colossi?

Because in myth and folklore, ammonites are snakestones. That is, they were believed to offer protection against snakebites. The wonder of the worldwide web allows me to commend to you this paper from 1911, which explores folk beliefs from around the British Isles regarding fossils, and has plenty on the ammonite-as-snakestone. It appears that in some versions of this legend, ammonites  themselves were thought to be coiled, petrified (and headless) snakes. Having been turned to stone by the powers of the local saint (their heads falling off in the process), through sympathetic magic they became protective against snakebites- this may have involved ammonites being worn or carried as amulets, or used as a medicinal intervention if a bite had already occurred (e.g. by being rubbed against the wound, or ground into a medicinal drink). There are further re-tellings of saint-and-snakestone legends here.

The giant ammonites of Peacehaven are examples of the genus Parapuzosia, and are among the largest found anywhere on the globe. You can learn more about the fossils and geology of Peacehaven here, an excellent site whence I pinched the picture below, which shows three of Peacehaven’s largest Parapuzosia ammonites on their rock ‘pedestals’:

Like bulwarks they stand against the blind fury of the cosmic serpent- and the wanderers, shamans, scribes and servants of the Shoreline breathe a little easier for their presence.

Le Dauphin Acéphale

Number 13

Today is Friday 13th and this is the 13th post on the Shoreline. An appropriate time to consider this recent event on Saltdean beach:

Decapitated dolphin found on Saltdean beach

Saltdean resident Gilles Guichard made the grisly discovery on Tuesday afternoon. He said: “It was quite shocking. The head had completely gone and it was lying on a rock.”

The rest of the article talks up the possibility that the unfortunate dolphin may have been attacked by a shark, then talks it down again:

Steve Strange, the Sussex representative for the Seawatch Foundation, said: “There are cases of whales and dolphins that have died elsewhere floating around and then been hit by a boat. We do get sharks in the area but normally in the summer. They are likely to have moved somewhere they are more likely to find food.”

(Surely not that Steve Strange?)

(It is, frankly, unlikely to have been a shark attack, though if more local finds suggest otherwise, rest assured the Shoreline will be on the case: watching the waters, sensing the chthonic eddies, and generally smelling the breath of the beast.)

The news report is, of course, entirely silent regarding the esoteric ripples and resonances of this event, leaving it to the Shoreline to- how can I put it- read the entrails. So grab yourself a bit of driftwood, and let’s have a hack at the carcass.

In Greek mythology, dolphins were associated with Apollo, whose sanctuary was at Delphi: the name itself is probably a dolphin reference. Apollo rode to Deplhi on a dolphin (or swam there in the guise of one, depending on the version), before confronting and slaying the serpent Python, a monstrous snake-dragon which had prevented access to the sanctuary and which no mortal could defeat. Having killed Python with a single arrow, Apollo claimed the sanctuary.

The Ancient Greeks believed Deplhi was the Omphalos, the Navel (here synonymous with Centre) of the World. This sacred site is most famous for the Delphic Oracle:

The Delphic Oracle, known as the “Pythia”. This priestess would be seated on a tripod (Apollo’s symbol of prophecy) in a state of trance, the position of the tripod was situated above a fissure in the floor of the temple, from which arose strange hallucinating vapors. She would also be chewing laurel leaves, while in this trance she only mumbled her answer, which a high priest would translate into Apollo’s prophecy. Before this took place the supplicants (male only), which were known as Theopropes, had to be purified in a ritual washing ceremony which took place in the Castalian Spring. The Pythia also had to purify herself in the same manner before she performed her duties. The consultation would begin with a ritual sacrifice of an animal, but if the offering was not in a favorable condition and if cold water sprinkled onto the animal made it tremble the supplicant and the animal were turned away. From here the petitioners would enter the sanctum of the temple. Here the question, which had been previously written, was handed to the priest, who in turn asked the Pythia for Apollo’s answer. From her sometimes garbled muttering, the priest would translate into hexameter verse. The Pythia never gave a straight answer, Heraclitus the philosopher (circa 500 BCE) said. The oracle neither conceals nor reveals the truth, but only hints at it.

Rather like this blog then.

Could a decapitated dolphin represent vengeance for Python? A brutal eruption of serpent energy here on the Shoreline? Recently we considered the great World Serpent Ouroboros, its manifestations in this locality and its symbolism of recurrence and renewal. Is this the dark side of that current?

For the Greeks, dolphins were themselves associated with notions of renewal. They were conveyors of souls: the Cretans and Etruscans depicted dolphins as carriers of the dead, bringing the newly deceased to the Isles of the Blessed. Thus they were creatures with the power to cross the liminal threshold between worlds, and in this role were symbols of regeneration.

Ah, regeneration. The Eternal Wheel turns once again, and the phoenix rises in glory from the flames. Life triumphs over stasis, and all is well. Isn’t it wonderful? Well, yes it is. But in the face of this there can be no retreat into warm fuzzy feelgood mysticism: pain, fear,  suffering, death, decay and putrefaction are all very real parts of the cycle- just as much as birth, love, art, music and the pursuit of knowledge. If we try to explain away the pain of the World as ‘just another part of the the cycle’ we diminish, gloss over, or even entirely deny it.

The symbolism of the Death card in the Tarot is often discussed in terms of regeneration- something is ending, but something new will arise in its place. Search online for discussion of Major Arcanum number 13, and you’ll see much reassuring talk of ‘new beginnings’, ‘fresh starts’, and the like. Well, OK. But let’s not forget the Death.  And a decapitated dolphin is one hell of a memento mori.

Georges Bataille, with his base materialism, would doubtless have agreed with these sentiments, and there is a link here with Bataille’s Acephale (Headless), which was both a cultural journal and a secret society. There were five issues of Acephale, the journal, between 1936 and 1939. It was mostly written by Bataille himself, but also included contributions from the likes of Andre Masson and Roger Caillois. It was largely concerned with the ideas of Nietzsche, and with claiming Nietzsche back from the Fascists, who were by now rampant across Europe. And, by extension, it attempted to imbue the Left with a radical re-imagining of the powerful mythic forces so successfully appropriated and channelled by the far Right in this period. Bataille recognised that the Left’s po-faced secularism was lacking something in terms of magnetic appeal. A reproduction of Acephale 2 can be seen here (ignore the ads and download buttons though).

Acephale, the secret society, included the same people, more or less, and had the same agenda of radicalising the sacred… probably. No-one seems to know exactly what they got up to: phrases like ‘secret rites’ and ‘occult rituals’ come up in the brief accounts that are available,  but I can find no detail beyond that. Legend has it that all the members of the group were intrigued by the notion of ritual sacrifice by beheading, and all agreed to be the victim in such a rite. But none would agree to be the executioner.

Whatever the truth, it seems clear that, for Bataille, a complete rejection of religion and mysticism could readily co-exist with an intense interest in these things for what they could reveal about the base material of the human condition. Contradiction? Well, the Shoreline is familiar with such contradictions, and offers the following advice: when you find yourself having to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable worldviews, zoom out, until you find a vantage point that gives a view that can encompass both, and hopefully many more besides.

Three Roses

It gladdens my scarab to see from my site stats that I’ve had a number of visitors land here through a Google Image search for single rose. Having just tried this search myself, it’s apparent that anyone arriving at the Shoreline via this route must have waded through many pages of results before alighting on this post of mine and its accompanying lead image. It appears that these visitors are looking for an image a little less ordinary than those which make up the vast majority of the results on Google. This is understandable, as those are mostly sugary, and indeed cheesy- a particularly emetic flavour combination.

So, as a public service, I present here three images of single roses, for all who wish to feast their eyes and imagination on something a little more nourishing than the Interflora catalogue. Those searching for rose images to send to a love interest should find that these will strike the appropriate chord in the bosom of the recipient.

We begin with the Flemish engraver and printer Johann Theodor de Bry, or possibly a follower of his. An alchemical emblem from the early 17th century. The Latin translates as The rose gives honey to the bees, the bees being seekers after truth who come to drink the nectar of the Divine, symbolised by the rose.

Our second image is equally remarkable and striking, and will surely stir the heart of all who regard it:

Rose Brain by Turkish photographer Nazif Topcuoglu, found via Foxes In Breeches (some NSFW content at that link, and I predict that, as a result of my saying that, it will now become the most-clicked link on this blog to date). The photographer specialises in lavish reconstructions of bygone eras, and this is apparently a recreation of a Roman dish. I cannot vouch for its historical accuracy, but I note that this Roman Cookery page does have a tasty-sounding recipe for rosehip and calf’s brain custard.

Finally, we have something from that scoundrel Dali:

This seems to be variously titled Rosa Meditiva or simply The Rose, and is from 1958, long after his split with Breton and Surrealism, at a time when he was proclaiming himself more inspired by science and its discoveries than by the autopsychedelic paranoiac-critical method of his younger days. Heisenberg, he said, had replaced Freud as his creative ‘father’.  The image showcases his extraordinary draftsmanship, with the rose echoing the lotus of Eastern iconography. The two tiny figures under it introduce nuances of meaning: are they lovers? Perhaps they are creating the rose, and basking in its radiance. Yet there is human frailty here too: the pair seem so terribly vulnerable, utterly dwarfed- perhaps even imperilled- by the magnitude of Love.

The wholeness which is a combination of ‘I and you’ is part of a transcendent unity whose nature can only be grasped in symbols like the rose

– Jung

In the driest white stretch of pain’s infinite desert, I lost my sanity and found this rose.

Rumi

The Ouroboros Egg

Pale urchin

This fossilised sea urchin was given to my 7-year old daughter by fossil-hunters on the beach at Birling Gap, Beachy Head. Over thousands of millennia it has turned to a tough chalk, typical of the fossils of the Southern England Chalk Formation. It may well be the same genus as this Echinocorys, which was found at nearby Seaford and dates from the Cretaceous Period.

Sea creatures are generally associated with the mysterious, the erotic, the irrational: all the stuff of the Shoreline. And they were everywhere you looked in the work of the Surrealists. However, I was uncertain what to make of this particular creature. An online search for sea urchin symbolism directed me to Rene Guenon’s The Great Triad, the first 40 pages or so of which you can read for free on Google Books, though posting a direct link defeats me. On pages 29-34 he discusses the World Egg, a symbol that occurs in many traditions: the Cosmic Egg which contains both Heaven and Earth, and as such represents the alchemist’s quest for self-transformation. The egg is associated with serpents:

And that footnote 11 says…

Well now. Not just a sea urchin, but a fossil sea-urchin. My daughter had been given an egg of the Cosmic Serpent: Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail. Symbol of renewal, recurrence, and immortality: life begetting life.

The Ouroboros, or something very like it, occurs in so many ancient traditions that Jung considered it an archetype, an expression of something fundamental in both the collective psyche and the alchemical process:

The alchemists, who in their own way knew more about the nature of the individuation process than we moderns do, expressed this paradox through the symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites, and he therefore constitutes the secret of the prima materia which […] unquestionably stems from man’s unconscious. (Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis).

The serpent endlessly renews itself: yet something is missing. Nothing new is happening: the cycle simply repeats and repeats. But this is where the egg comes in- by the serpent’s production of the egg, novelty and change are introduced: the possibility of progress.

I know little about Rene Guenon. His assertion that the fossil sea-urchin represents the serpent’s egg is unreferenced and I have been unable to find a source, although this page also identifies the sea urchin (though not fossilised specifically) as representing “the serpent’s cosmic world-creating seed… the ‘serpent’s egg‘”, while The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art has this to say:

So there does appear to be a precedent for Guenon’s association of the urchin and the serpent’s egg.

To understand this fully, however, we must consider what actually happened when the fossil was given to my daughter.

Being my daughter, she is familiar with fossils, and was intrigued by the fossil-hunters at Birling Gap, and keen to see what they were up to. They had found three fossil urchins that day, and presented her with the best-preserved of the three. In other words, we have here a deep symbol, one of the very deepest: an ancient idea that recurs across times and cultures, an image that encrypts the secret of alchemy. But most significantly, this symbol became manifest on the Shoreline through two enabling processes:

the curiosity of a child

and

the kindness of strangers

Consider this well – and keep hope in your heart.