Archive for December, 2013


eelpie and paleale by trunkles

December 29, 2013




‘A Ruby and Triangled Sign’: Spiritualised Matter in Joyce and Khunrath

December 28, 2013


The University of Wisconsin has one of only three copies of Heinrich Khunrath’s Ampitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Hamburg 1595), ‘The Amphitheatre of Eternal Knowledge’, which it has scanned and posted up online. I came across it via this blog, whose author, Benjamin Breen – floored by the complexity and beauty of the images and text – makes some interesting observations regarding one of the plates:

The figure of the hermaphrodite as a metaphor for the dualistic nature of the universe and the human body is a common one in alchemical imagery. Likewise, the sun and moon are frequently used to symbolize the male and female natures inherent in different elements (the sun is gold/male, the moon female/silver, etc.) The black peacock labelled “AZOTH” leads us deeper into Hermetic territory. Azoth was the hypothesized universal solvent, the “ultimate substance” which could transform all elements. Here it seems to be used to convey the union of male and female (and of all elements) which would allow the corporeal human form to transcend to a divine plane.

A detail from here

A detail from here

In his more extensive commentary on Khunrath’s Ampitheatre, here, Breen draws on the book The Alchemy of Light, by Urszula Szulakowska, who argues that the engravings in Khunrath’s texts

are intended to excite the imagination of the viewer so that a mystic alchemy can take place through the act of visual contemplation… Khunrath’s theatre of images, like a mirror, catoptrically reflects the celestial spheres to the human mind, awakening the empathetic faculty of the human spirit which unites, through the imagination, with the heavenly realms. Thus, the visual imagery of Khunrath’s treatises has become the alchemical quintessence, the spiritualized matter of the philosopher’s stone.

The images, in other words, ‘invite the viewer to engage in a meditation on the nature of the universe and on the links between the earthly and the divine, the corporeal and the spiritual’.

Another notable feature of this picture is the presence of ‘a ruby and triangled sign’ near the apex, the same form which excites the imagination of Leopold Bloom in ‘The Oxen of the Sun’ episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses,as he drifts into a contemplative reverie:

What is the age of the soul of man? As she hath the virtue of the chameleon to change her hue at every new approach, to be gay with the merry and mournful with the downcast, so too is her age changeable as her mood. No longer is Leopold, as he sits there, ruminating, chewing the cud of reminiscence, that staid agent of publicity and holder of a modest substance in the funds. A score of years are blown away. He is young Leopold. There, as in a retrospective arrangement, a mirror within a mirror (hey, presto!), he beholdeth himself.

This many-hued changeability is expressed in the image of the bird, which represents the phases of the Work, being composed of the raven (putrefactio), the swan (albedo), the peacock (phase of bright colours) and the phoenix (rubedo) (Roob 1997: 115). At the same time, Bloom’s inner vision, his simultaneous perspective upon himself and the cosmos, is reflected in Khunrath’s depiction of the alchemical Work in the form of an eyeball, whereby the iris is also a cartographic globe.

And lo, wonder of metempsychosis, it is she, the everlasting bride, harbinger of the daystar, the bride, ever virgin. It is she, Martha, thou lost one, Millicent, the young, the dear, the radiant. How serene does she now arise, a queen among the Pleiades, in the penultimate antelucan hour, shod in sandals of bright gold, coifed with a veil of what do you call it gossamer. It floats, it flows about her starborn flesh and loose it streams, emerald, sapphire, mauve and heliotrope, sustained on currents of the cold interstellar wind, winding, coiling, simply swirling, writhing in the skies a mysterious writing till, after a myriad metamorphoses of symbol, it blazes, Alpha, a ruby and triangled sign upon the forehead of Taurus.


Image from here

If I had poor luck with Bass’s mare perhaps this draught of his may serve me more propensely. He was laying his hand upon a winejar: Malachi saw it and withheld his act, pointing to the stranger and to the scarlet label. Warily, Malachi whispered, preserve a druid silence. His soul is far away. It is as painful perhaps to be awakened from a vision as to be born. Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods. Do you not think it, Stephen? Theosophos told me so, Stephen answered, whom in a previous existence Egyptian priests initiated into the mysteries of karmic law. The lords of the moon, Theosophos told me, an orangefiery shipload from planet Alpha of the lunar chain would not assume the etheric doubles and these were therefore incarnated by the rubycoloured egos from the second constellation.

Cary Yale Visconti

The Sun card from the Cary Yale Visconti deck of the Tarot

However, as a matter of fact though, the preposterous surmise about him being in some description of a doldrums or other or mesmerised which was. entirely due to a misconception of the shallowest character, was not the case at all. The individual whose visual organs while the above was going on were at this juncture commencing to exhibit symptoms of animation was as astute if not astuter than any man living and anybody that conjectured the contrary would have found themselves pretty speedily in the wrong shop. During the past four minutes or thereabouts he had been staring hard at a certain amount of number one Bass bottled by Messrs Bass and Co at Burton-on-Trent which happened to be situated amongst a lot of others right opposite to where he was and which was certainly calculated to attract anyone’s remark on account of its scarlet appearance.

In Ulysses the ‘ruby and triangled sign’ on a bottle of beer has the same potential to induce a meditation on the nature of the universe as is ascribed to Khunrath’s theatre of images, of which, curiously, the red triangle is a part. In Joyce’s cosmology, the erotic dimension of this image (identified with Nora Barnacle) – the delta which prefigures the ‘ensouling female’, ALP, in Finnegans Wake – attests to the centrality of the lived body in the experience of the eternal.


Jacob Böhme Centrum Naturae


On the longest night… Happy Saturnalia!

December 21, 2013


Two lovely pictures, depicting the Golden Age, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. A mythical era of pleasure and social equality presided over by Saturn, this blissful, lost age is evoked in the Roman festival of Saturnalia.



Within the Animals’ Allness: a poetic response to the growing solitary confinement of humans

December 14, 2013

Human-animal interactions and metamorphoses have become quite prominent in my thinking lately. The other night I saw a wonderful performance by the Theatre of the Ayre of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s mini-opera, Actéon. It concerns the transformation of the eponymous character into a stag, in punishment for his viewing the goddess Diana bathing, and his subsequent death as his own hunting pack attack him. The sense of loss and abandonment to fate conveyed by Paul Agnew’s portrayal of Actéon at the moment of his metamorphosis was palpable and moving.

Actaeon by Parmigianino

Actaeon, 16th-century fresco by Parmigianino at Rocca Sanvitale Wikimedia commons

Perhaps prompted by that and the other magical animal stuff I’ve been writing about recently, my thoughts have turned to a poem I composed, and recurrently reworked,  in my late teens, inspired by a television documentary. The documentary, as far as I can remember, involved John Berger and was concerned with our relationship to animals. I was never happy with any of the versions of the poem, but I’ll reproduce here a version (for information purposes) adapted from a range of crossed-out drafts.



Living within the animals’ allness everywhere,

We ran with the panting hounds in the Caledon forests,

And danced around the white mare on the downs.

While Durotrigean tribesmen wore bulls’ horns

And bellowed as they charged into war.


(We have got past that stage now).


A skin of civilisation has grown:

As cars speed sleekly on ribbons of hope, a precious liquid coursing through their veins,

Carrying gilt-edged guarantees of wealth from city to city.


To protect today’s values the nations prepare (just in case)

To unleash blind destruction, which is only a finger’s twitch away

(And we don’t want a return to skins and woad).


The gold begins to flake.


In a roadside pasture

A tethered horse grazes spiritlessly.

A paper tiger gazes from a billboard.

In a thousand places now

A leash-bound dog pants down the street –

“Obey your master!”

And weekly visits to the supermarket

Should find bulls enough

In neat little packages stacked on the racks

As till bells ring the sameness.


The gold begins to flake.

Burghead Bull

In fact, the documentary, Parting Shots from Animals, was broadcast by the BBC in 1980 in the Omnibus strand. It looks at humans – and their growing solitary confinement – from the perspective of animals. Andy Merrifield writes that it would never get made today: it is ‘too satirical, too sombre in mood, too ironical in tone, too ambiguous in meaning for a contemporary television that flourishes through smiley faces, easy answers and readymade solutions’. The commentary ‘is not upbeat, nor is there any happy ending… Berger’s opening narrative is menacing, warning of an apocalypse now‘, giving way to an eerie vision with the sound turned down, as a white horse stands alone in a desolate field, ‘surrounded by bones and giant fossils of his long-extinct brethren’ (Andy Merrifield, 2012, John Berger, London: Reaktion Books, p.113). The poem’s ‘tethered horse’ that ‘grazes spiritlessly’ surely recalls that image.

I don’t want to overburden the slight frame of Totems with a detailed exegesis. Suffice to say, it was written against a discourse of progress that was exemplified by the propaganda of the nuclear industry, which cast its opponents as wanting ‘a return to skins and woad’. While I don’t hanker for archaic forms of hierarchy, militarism or brutality, the immediacy of the bovine bellowing of an Iron Age warband (the Durotriges lived in what is now Dorset) is deliberately contrasted with the mediation of a labour-saving flick of a switch, leading to the deaths of millions. Likewise, the shrink-wrapped anonymity of industrially processed meat further manifests this separation from the life of animals and the animal life of humans, into a confected, superficial  representation of life as ‘consumer freedom’ and permissible choice, ‘never tasted before’.

In an early draft I had written, ‘within the animals’ omnipotence’. The word ‘omnipotence’ – as a quality, usually associated with a transcendent, monotheistic God – had soon after been crossed out, to be replaced by ‘allness‘. It must have been an attempt to convey in more everyday terms the immanence of some kind of animating principle, an ‘ensouled materiality’, something which I’ve since learned can be seen as manifestations of the World Soul or anima mundi.


Now, as then, the circulation of commodities – the lifeblood of capitalist civilisation – continues to impose itself everywhere over and against the rhythm of life.




December 11, 2013



Gallic silver coin with horse and serpent iconography, found on this site


Ritual Animal Disguise and Asger Jorn’s Materialistic Cult of Life

December 7, 2013

Ritual Animal Disguise

I could always rely on E C Cawte’s book, Ritual Animal Disguise (1978) for the odd unnerving picture, particularly this one of hobby horses and masked-up Christmas Mummers performing at Winster Hall, in Derbyshire, around about 1870. Now, a colourful new vein of imagery to bewilder and disconcert has appeared from 21st-century Europe.

Cerbul, Romania

Cerbul (Stag) from Corlata, Romania. It is resurrected by dancers after being ritually slain (from here).

The pictures are part of the Wilder Mann series of photographs by Charles Fréger, who visited nineteen countries to encounter elements of what he calls ‘tribal Europe’, from Scotland to Poland, Italy to the Czech Republic. The disguises are connected with Midwinter, Spring and Harvest festivals, themes of renewal and fertility, and the relationship between humans and animals.


Asger Jorn, in his essay ‘The human animal’,  mused over this complicated relationship in terms familiar from his validation of an earthy, Dionysian folk culture opposed to the Apollonian high culture of the aristocratic elite:

The human animal is the key problem of European culture. What is the real reason that Darwin’s unbiased description of human descent can still give offence today? Why is so much weight placed upon convincing that animal of the ape species who calls himself Man that he is not an animal in spite of the fact that even a child can see this, which in itself is quite natural and obvious. Why should we, who as embryos go through all the animal stages, deny our own nature? Why and how were the old gods, half-animal, half-human, of Egypt, India, Persia, America and even Europe transformed to devilish representatives of evil through the Middle Ages until recently? Why is the dragon still the holy sign of China and the Orient whilst the dragon-slayer has become the West’s most cherished symbol, the symbol of the fight against “evil”?

A bishop strikes the head of a serpent with his crozier. 11th-century font in Avebury church.

A bishop strikes the head of a serpent with his crozier. 11th-century font in Avebury church.

How often has one read Apuleius’s The Golden Ass without finding out what it really was he wanted to relate in this homage to Isis? He said everything and yet said nothing because he had hidden the key and because we saw the transformation from Pinocchio’s viewpoint, from a terror of the bestial… and I understood that the initiation into the mystery occurred through that transformation into a golden ass, that monotheism is a delusion, discovered to satisfy formal logic, and then gradually meaning came into all those fairytales from the Middle Ages where the dragon is transformed into a prince because a princess loves and kisses the loathsome beast. Kafka has never described this transformation, the humanization of the animal through love, which I find so full of meaning. It is a secret that the higher European philosophy has sought to hide from us for centuries and which has been handed down to us through the common people.

Wilder Mann 035

… we are sparks that must burn as bright as possible… the strength of the light is conditioned by the depth of the darkness, which is why what is put out is just as correct as what is lit. This is the divine law of unity, that nothing is eternal that is not earthly and nothing is earthly without being a part of eternity.


E. C. Cawte 1978 Ritual Animal Disguise, Ipswich: D. S. Brewer, and Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield

Asger Jorn 1988 ‘The human animal’, in A Bibliography of Asger Jorn’s Writings, compiled by Per Hofman Hansen (trans. Peter Shield). Silkeborg Kunstmuseum.

Looking for a Mediæval manuscript picture of animal-headed mummers to round this post off, I’ve found that someone else has blogged about animal disguise in the last week or so, here



Three Quarks for Muster Mark

December 7, 2013


Three quarks for Muster Mark!

Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark

And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.


Hohohoho, moulty Mark!


‘All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold when they smacked the big kuss of Trustan with Usolde’

Images: Essaouira, Morocco, 2011

Text: Finnegans Wake, page 383