Thursday, 28 June 2018

Witchlines: Spondylus Shell

This is the final (long overdue) piece I have written for the first unit of Witchlines, and I think it provides not only a fitting ending, but also a fitting beginning for the work of Unit 2, as you will soon see. 

Spondylus Shell

He said it was my turn to try, to shape something out of the white, the soft white, light in my hand, like a cloud come down, made stone. He showed me how to carve, how to grind away at the edges with a sharp piece of flint, gifting me with the white, curving form.
What is it? Where has it come from?
Far away, he said, from the place of water, the place of the past, which we no longer know. A place of blue. It is precious.
I did not understand, but I held the white piece in my hand—like bone, but alive under my fingers. I felt it speak to my palm, I felt it move, and I ran out of the village and along the trail that leads into the forest, and went to my special place, where I place the clay figures as offerings. In there, there is a hush, away from the houses where the women sing and bake bread, where the small children chatter and play. It is my green place, where I might snare a rabbit, or startle a deer—or be startled by the whoosh of a bird’s wings, and have my heart beat faster. In the wild green I held the white piece from the place of blue, and I listened to what it told me.
Fish, it said. Fish!
With my piece of flint I began to carve, to shape, letting my hands be led by what dwelt inside the chalky whiteness. Dust clung to my fingers, and settled on my clothes, and from the curve came a leaping form, water-wise and graceful, with tail and scales.
If this white piece says fish, and came from a place of water, of the past, which we no longer know, what does it say now? What can it tell me? What precious knowledge is wound into its flesh?

As one day dies a new day is birthed.

Little white fish, does a future wait in the place of blue?

I placed the fish beside the other offerings, to shine in the green gloom, and speak what it knew of water and of coming days to the earth.

* * *

The shells of Spondylus gaederopus, a type of bivalve mollusc, which lives in the waters of the Mediterranean, were highly valued in Neolithic Old Europe. They were traded far inland, and used for making beads, pendants, bracelets, and other objects, which may have held some kind of magical value.   

For this task I had to describe the making of an object, and what it might mean to the maker. I also allude to both the beginning and ending of Old Europe—for the first people of those Neolithic cultures migrated into Europe from the area of the Aegean; and, after the fall of Old Europe on the mainland, the last vestiges of the culture survived for another 2000 years in the Aegean, most notably on the island of Crete. Thus, the past and the future are linked through a piece of spondylus shell. 

I’ve used some artistic licence here: it’s possible that the Old Europeans who lived far inland from the sea did not know quite what the shells were, or where they came from, only that they had symbolic value, and were therefore deemed to be precious. I have suggested, however, that a memory of their origins may still have lived within them. 

Also note: while the raw shells could be reddish or purple (as pictured below), they would lose their colour over time and become white.

Spondylus gaederopus from Sicily, on display at the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano
(Source: Wikimedia, by Hectonichus)

Monday, 25 June 2018

Wise Words: Belowness

Aboriginal people talk of the land as if it is a body merely and recently clothed with the supermarket, golf course, airport or town, as if in time the body could and would shuck off these flimsy shifts and be naked again. As if “Adelaide” were as inconsequential as pyjama bottoms and a street just a scarf to be lightly tossed aside in the breeze. You may think you tame the land with concrete and pavements, but its wildness persists, primal and feral, below.

Below, too, there is an immanent world of “spirit business,” which I heard about on the slant, a scrap of paper from a diary blowing in a garden, a paragraph of tension, a look askance, a brief recollection. It is as if the land has veins under the skin, hot with the blood of revenge and power.

(Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey, Penguin: London, 2006, p. 259)

Thursday, 21 June 2018

In The Dead Of Night: A Poem

In the dead of night 
  there is life and light : 

the dead dance 

Dreams whisper our desires

Grandmother Owl swallows us 

and in her belly we 

(23rd August 2017)

Grandmother Owl, gouache on card (June 2018)

Monday, 18 June 2018

Wise Words: Made From This Earth

We know ourselves to be made from this earth. We know this earth is made from our bodies. For we see ourselves. And we are nature. We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature. Nature weeping. Nature speaking of nature to nature. The red-winged blackbird flies in us, in our inner sight. We see the arc of her flight. We measure the ellipse. We predict its climax. We are amazed. We are moved. We fly … And yet the blackbird does not fly in us but is somewhere else free of our minds, and now even free of our sight, flying in the path of her own will …


… when I let this bird fly to her own purpose, when this bird flies in the path of his own will, the light from this bird enters my body, and when I see the beautiful arc of her flight, I love this bird, when I see, the arc of her flight, I fly with her, enter her with my mind, leave myself, die for an instant, live in the body of this bird whom I cannot live without …

(Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, The Women’s Press: London, pp. 226 and 227)

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Witchlines: Zemya–Zmiya

The first unit of Witchlines finished in early May, and the second unit started just last week, so I am running very behind with the creative tasks! 

This is the sixth (and second-last) creative piece (from Unit 1), which explores a dance of Old Europe, inspired by the existing dance traditions of Bulgaria. In this instance I have described a ‘chain dance,’ known throughout eastern Bulgaria as the bouenek, and more generically throughout Europe as the farandole. The dancers, with linked hands, form a living body, which draws figures on the ground like a snake. 

A note on the title: In Bulgarian, zemya = earth and zmiya = snake; both words come from the same etymological root—zumya, which means both of these things (as related by Anna Ilieva and Anna Shturbanova, in ‘Some Zoomorphic Images in Bulgarian Women’s Ritual Dances in the Context of Old European Symbolism’). 


The women gather around the flat stone—the throne—the centre—Her ancient mineral eye. The eldest of them—grandmother, aunt, sister—pours the libation from the breasts of the vessel, the milk that nourishes—and calls in Snake.
There is a song that is sung in spring, in early summer, that the women find humming on their tongue, in their veins, as the life of the earth awakens, and She spreads her wings with joy. And the young maidens, all fresh with the beauty of youth and growing knowing, begin to hear it too, first softly, and then louder, more insistently. It brightens their eyes, quickens their feet. They let down their hair and bathe in cold streams. They wind garlands of leaves around their bodies, and tie sinuous belts round their slim waists. Fringed skirts fall from their hips, clay beads clinking. And with the women, they climb to the top of the hill, gathering like a swarm of humming bees, to circle the stone—the starting place, the doorway that opens.
The older women teach the younger the steps, the rhythm, the chant, rocking to and fro, skirts swaying—singing and dancing until Snake appears—emerging from the space between song and land, between body and spirit.
The maidens join hands, and the snake begins to move, circling around the sacred stone, spiralling in and out, pulsing and gliding to a rhythm made visible, given form, in a long, graceful body with many eyes. The snake coils slowly down the hillside, caressing and caressed by new green shoots, fragrant herbs, pulled by an irresistible force.

The women begin to sing more loudly, and the green-clad snake to move more quickly, as they near the foot of the hill, and the fields where the emmer will grow, the beans, the vetch. Past the enclosures where the pigs wallow, and where the goats gaze out with curiosity. The snake glides, guided by the song, pulling energy from the ground, and releasing it into the air, thrusting it up from plant roots into leaves and buds.

When the snake nears the village its body coils in one last spiral of turning energy, before it is dismembered, disappearing back into the fertile earth, as the maidens unlink their hands. Then they dance with the young men, who call their own energy up from the ground, from their bodies, to mingle with the women’s song.

That evening, after a long day of singing, dancing, and feasting, the people return to their houses to sleep. Joyful. Grateful. 

Small green snakes lie coiled in the corners of the rooms.

Image of a dancing woman wearing a ritual belt, from Magurata Cave,
north-west Bulgaria, c. 4500–4000 BC (Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Vislupus

Monday, 11 June 2018

Wise Words: The Universe Inside Your Body

Your body is the root of all creative work. When you write or paint with the whole of yourself, you are in touch with the universe inside your body: everything you have ever felt, heard, seen, or thought - and is yet to become - exists inside you. Your skin, your bones, your breath, your liver, your heart, your hands, your sense of hearing, your eyes, the soft tissue inside your throat, the taste buds on the tongue, the barely audible sighs of the muscles inside the gut, are all resonating chambers for communication and therefore expression. By developing a deep-listening connection to your body mind it becomes possible to create paintings and words, which convey a true experience of communication. They become clear energetic templates of your conversations unfolding with yourself. Learning to use your body as the ground or originating place of your self-connection and expression, embodying your imagination as a muscle, helps to grow the innately healing and physical nature of your creativity.

(Suzette Clough, quoted in Jackee Holder, 49 Ways to Write Yourself Well: The Science and Wisdom of Writing and Journaling, Exisle Publishing: Wollombi, NSW, 2015, p. 134)

Thursday, 7 June 2018

A Lingering Dry Spell

Sometimes the flow slows to a trickle, and it feels as if the water will never run freely again. You feel dry and exposed, frustrated and lost. Whatever is blocking the spring, the stream, is caught inside you, congesting your body-mind, impeding your heart, silencing your voice. And there comes a time when you want to scream or cry at the loss of what was yours, for what is there to live for when creation is stuck, atrophying, dying back on itself? 

The lifeblood is thickened and sluggish, and there is nowhere to go, for body–mind–heart–voice–hands. There is only a slowness, a lethargy that consumes all in its path, sucking the moisture out of life, leaving you arid and depleted. 

Can there be a way back from living death? Can there be a return?

If life and death are a continuum, and not separate, then there is always a way back from death, for it is merely a part of the cycle. The spring stops flowing, and a desert grows around you. Life—like desert toads—retreats underground, to wait out the dry spell, readying and steadying itself, for the day when the rain comes, and the blockage is flushed away, and everything flows again with a force that cannot be stopped. 

That day will come when it is ready, and not before. There is no controlling these things.
Like the bone-dry earth, you must wait, with patience and anticipation, for the rain.

* * *

Over the last few days we have indeed been blessed with some rain, after several weeks with barely a drop; and the sky has been low and dim, like a proper winter’s day. What a relief!

I’m still waiting for my own rain (i.e. creative flow) to return, but I trust that it will, in time.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Wise Words: The Way Of The Wild

Philosopher Mary Midgley, in Beast and Man, describes how Western societies have considered beasts to be lawless and savage, yet studies of animal behaviour show the reverse: that animals lead highly ordered, “lawful” lives. Take the wolf. They are, writes Midgley, “by human standards, paragons of steadiness and good conduct. They pair for life, they are faithful and affectionate spouses and parents, they show great loyalty to their pack and great courage and persistence in the face of difficulties, they carefully respect one another’s territory, keep their dens clean, and extremely seldom kill anything that they do not need for dinner.” In folkloric terms, the wolf is used as an emblem for lawless cruelty, in contrast to humans. The truth, argues Midgley, is rather the reverse. People used to flay wolves alive in medieval France. Do wolves ever flay people alive? Do wolves flay wolves alive? Humans are more cruel to one another and to animals than any other creature, but humans have projected onto animals their own savagery. 

For much of the world, for most of history, Nature was Law—it was the way people organized morality. For indigenous people, Law is in the land and nature is anything but lawless; rather there is a profound core of order within wild nature. “I am the Way,” said Jesus. By contrast, all nature-based philosophies have seen that in Wilderness was Way. American anarchist Murray Bookchin comments that the term Way is universal to all early communities, meaning ethics, rituals, a sensibility and lifeways, as well as universal meaning, an eternal order that rules everything: the sun, the moon, plants and animals, all of nature.

… Wilderness,  nature, freedom and law are all part of this Way, not in opposition to it. Wildness—complex, free, beautiful and only apparently chaotic—is part of a larger, deeper order.

(Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey, Penguin: London, 2006, pp. 274–275)
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