Psychedelic Omnivision

For some time I’ve been considering saying more about the psychonautical method that lies behind many of the posts here. A recent exchange in the comments on this post touched on this, and stimulated me to say a little more. So here, for once, is some explanation, rather than the usual mystification.

So… what I do here is, I suppose, related to psychogeography, although that term is generally used with regard to the exploration of urban spaces, and the Shoreline is obviously not in that category. However, an old psychogeographical trick, originated (I think) by the Situationists, was to navigate through one place using a map of another. An example might be using a London street atlas to plan a route around, say, Edinburgh (or indeed any city other than London itself). There is more to this than mere pranksterism: this apparently perverse exercise disrupts the standard relationship between map and territory, and between the explorer and the space explored. It more or less forces one to look at one’s surroundings with fresh eyes and a mindset based on curiosity and possibility. It may also generate strange resonances or synchronicities between the “wrong” map and the environment, and in so doing open the channel to mystery and wonder. Thus the day-to-day drudgery of urban alienation may be temporarily transmuted into something altogether more joyous.

The Haunted Shoreline works on a similar principle, except the ‘map’ is not any kind of street atlas or ordnance survey. It is just a very simple model of the psyche, divided into conscious and unconscious aspects. Something like this:

.. although I should stress that there is no need whatsoever to buy into Freudian ideas/terms (id, ego, superego) to grasp what I am getting at here: a simple division of mind into conscious and unconscious is enough.

This ‘map’ is then applied to the beaches near where I live. The sea is the unconscious, the land is the conscious. The Shoreline is the liminal threshold between the two.

From this basic method, all else proceeds. The rocks, fossils, found objects, and sea creatures I encounter become signs and portents, loaded with symbolism as they wash up from the depths. By taking the concept seriously- some of the time, at least- I can pursue and decode this symbolism, and draw conclusions from it. Of course, sometimes the only conclusion is one of wonderment at the sheer exhilarating strangeness of it all – and that’s plenty good enough for me. At times, however, peculiar insights emerge, like pieces of pirate’s treasure. The thoughts at which I eventually arrived when considering this fossilised sea urchin, for example, were for me genuinely uplifting, and I revisit them sometimes when I need cheering up.

Not long after I started the blog, a friend got in touch and politely enquired about my mental health. I understand why: this commingling of inner and outer worlds is, indeed, a hallmark of psychosis. So I should emphasise that this approach requires that one be deadly serious about it, while simultaneously finding it inherently absurd. This peculiar liminal space between belief and unbelief is, in one sense, the very essence of what the Shoreline is all about.

To put it another way: a reader recently emailed me (that’s thehauntedshoreline@gmail.com if you want to do likewise, or search for ‘Haunted Shoreline’ on Facebook) to ask whether I ‘really believe’ some of the things I write here (in fact his specific question was whether I really believed that my discovery of the pebble I called ‘the Wombstone‘ was a sign that something was ‘about to be born’). I can answer this very easily: no, I do not believe these things… and neither do I disbelieve them. In fact the question of ‘belief’ is completely irrelevant to me here. I entertain possibilities, and sometimes I find that these possibilities entertain me in return.

As with the Situationists on their urban derives, there is a particular state of mind which comes upon me when I hit the beach. Recently I came up with the term Psychedelic Omnivision as an attempt to encapsulate it in a catchy phrase, and hopefully thus avoid any need to laboriously dissect or describe it further. The image at the top of this post was not created by me – it’s just a random piece of internet flotsam that turned up in my Facebook feed a couple of days after the phrase first occurred to me, and struck me as being as good a pictorialisation of ‘psychedelic omnivision’ as I would be likely to find anywhere (although the lady at the back appears to have totally lost her head).

In fact I’ve been building up something of an archive of arresting Shoreline-related images found online- here’s another:

The Victor Hugo quote below the picture translates as “Imagination is nothing other than the reflection of Nature in the soul of Man”. I can’t think of a better note on which to end.

A Solstice Of Mists

Image

June 21st, midsummer morning: usually associated with images like this. But on the Shoreline, the solstice was wreathed in fog. Always this place manifests uncertainty, indeterminacy.

Down on the beach the other day, as I watched the tide ebb and flow, it struck me that the Shoreline is where, quite literally, things can go either way.

A Fistful Of Thunderbolts

More fossils this week: these are belemnite fragments gathered from Peacehaven beach.

Belemnites seem to lag some way behind their (perhaps more aesthetically appealing) cousins the ammonites in terms of public affection, or at least recognition- most people seem to have heard of ammonites, anyway. But it may be necessary to briefly explain what a belemnite is, or was. They were sea-dwelling creatures that lived in the Mesozoic era (which began about 250 million years ago, and ended about 60 million years ago). Like ammonites, belemnites were cephalopods: squid-like creatures- indeed they were probably distant forebears of our old friend the vampire squid. Unlike modern squid, though, they had an internal skeleton- a hard elongated ‘guard’, fossils of which are common coastline finds. Go here and here to learn more, and to see some specimens rather more impressive than the ones pictured above.

Information on belemnite fossils in Sussex seems scarce- I have no idea which species are found in this locality, and am unable to say much more about these finds from that point of view. So let’s get down to Shoreline business, and consider their mythic and esoteric import.

I’m intrigued to see the website of London’s famous Natural History Museum devoting pages to fossil folklore– when did they start doing that I wonder?- and here’s their lowdown on belemnites:

Because of their pointed shapes, it was once believed that belemnites were cast down from the heavens during  thunderstorms. This gave rise to their widely used name, thunderbolts.

There’s more on this here– some key extracts:

Belemnites are traditionally associated with thunderstorms and have many differing traditional names usually along the lines of thunderbolts, thunder-arrows or thunderstones. It was common folklore throughout Europe that these cylindrical bullet shaped fossils were cast down from the heavens as lightning, hit the ground and turned to stone. If one was struck by lightning it was believed that one had been struck with a thunderbolt.

The widespread nature of the association between belemnites and thunderbolts is illustrated by this:

In Russia belemnites are referred to as thunder-arrows, or gromovye strelki. Similarly in Lithuanian mythology belemnites are referred to as Pekuno akmu or Pekunas’ stone, Pekunas being the Thunder God and often compared to the Norse god Thor. It was also a traditional Germanic belief that to keep these thunderstones at home would afford the owners home from protection from lightning, and in parts of the Netherlands these donderstenen (Donar’s stones, Donar being the Thunder god) were kept in the roof. 

And there’s more still here, in the 1911 paper “Snakestones” and Stone Thunderbolts as Subjects for Systematic Investigation by the redoubtable W.W.Skeat- an article we’ve consulted before, when considering ammonites, and which also contains much of interest regarding belemnites:

At Whitby, according to Robinson, the term thunderbolt applied to “the petrified remains of a kind of cuttle-fish, in the Whitby Lias, resembling tubes of various lengths and thicknesses tapering to a point.” The comparison here made between the “thunderbolt” of this kind and a tube is not quite accurate, since a tube is generally considered to be hollow, whereas these fossils are, with the exception of a small and shallow cavity at the upper end, perfectly solid, and may be more suitably compared to a cigar than to a tube. I may add that the Greek Belemnon, whence they get their name, means dart or javelin, and is connected with the verb “ballein,” to cast….  in J. Walcott (1779) we read that “the Belemnite receives its English name thunder-bolt from the vulgar, who suppose it to be indeed the darts of heaven.”

It’s also recorded that belemnites were used in medicine. Eye problems in horses were apparently treated by belemnites, ground into dust and blown into the unfortunate beast’s eyes. This is the sort of thing that’s worth bearing in mind the next time you hear someone waxing sentimental about the wisdom of the ancients, or similar.

In Lithuania, belemnites were held to be effective against snakebites- an interesting parallel with ammonites. In view of the significance of snakebites in Shoreline mythopoiesis, it would be noteworthy if both of these fossils, commonly found along this coast, were invested with belief in protective or healing properties thereof. But the only mention I can find of belemnites as snakestones is that reference to Lithuania. It would be interesting to know if this kind of belief was more widespread.

I would also be intrigued to learn whether the common association between belemnites and thunderbolts was ever a feature of Indian mythology or folk superstition. Because if so, this would directly link the belemnite with the vajra, the thunderbolt of the gods in Hindu cosmology:

The vajra often appears as a divine weapon or attribute in depictions of Hindu deities, or in the tales about them.  Most significantly, the Rig Veda describes the first vajra being made for Indra, the hero. Indra then uses it to slay the serpent Vritra, which had brought drought to India by blocking the rivers (there are echoes of the story of Apollo and Python here).

So if the belemnite-as-thunderbolt trope can be extended to the Vedic myths, then we have another nexus of folk belief linking belemnites with the vanquishing of serpentine evil.

This would be of particular personal interest to me. I became interested in the symbolism of the vajra as long ago as 2003, when on a trip to San Francisco I saw this sculpture in the Asian Art Museum:

I have looked at many examples of Indian deity sculpture, but this one had a particular charge about it, and a powerful sense of grace and motion. Her name is Vajra Tara – ‘Thunderbolt Tara’- a particular manifestation of the goddess Tara, in feisty mode and fully tooled up with fiery vajra thunderbolts.

And, in fact, as I stood there before her, the goddess cast a thunderbolt directly at me. It lodged in my third eye, and it’s still there. But that’s another story for another day.

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.