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A Heart-Shaped, Rose-Coloured Pebble left for La Gran’mère

May 25, 2014

On May 20th – the day after St Dunstan’s Day – I had a chance to visit, for the first time, the Neolithic statue menhir on Guernsey known as La Gran’mère du Chimquiere – ‘The Grandmother of the Cemetery’. I’ve previously discussed it here, in a post under the heading, ‘Chaplets of ringarosary’; as a title, it alludes to the influence of Finnegans Wake in imagining a context for votive practice in prehistory and the present. Strangely enough, that roseate theme arose during this particular visit.

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Indeed, looking at the base of the menhir, I became aware of two rose-coloured pebbles placed behind La Gran’mère by a previous visitor. The larger of the two pebbles had a distinctive triangular shape, of equilateral proportions, which evoked for me the stylised shape of a heart. I don’t know whether it is the suggestion of a heart – the seat of the emotions – which has inspired the offering by a visitor not known to me, or whether it has been inspired by the well-attested association of the triangle motif with goddess iconography (and the figure of ALP (Anna Livia Plurabelle) in Finnegans Wake)… or both.

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I’m guessing that the water-worn pebbles are of some kind of pink granite present on the island, probably picked up from a local beach. Seeing them here, placed in this context, set forth a train of thought, linked to the casting out or expulsion of a feminine dimension of numinosity, most immediately evident in the expulsion of  La Gran’mère from the precincts of the churchyard (she now stands at the edge) and her breaking by an over-zealous church warden in the nineteenth century, outraged by the devotion to her of local parishioners (she has been repaired, but the crack is still visible).

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Intrinsic to this train of thought has been the rosiness of hue, embodied in the pebble offering, and featuring in an episode in the legendary life of St Dunstan (coincidentally enough, the patron saint of the parish of Cheam in Surrey, where I had wandered, three days before, during its Charter Fair, held on the eve of his Feast Day: I had passed over St Dunstan’s Hill and had a pint in Ye Olde Red Lion). The ramifications of that legendary life I wrote about in my PhD thesis, The World’s End, an extended extract of which I quote below (in red). I set the scene with the story of a ‘strong man of the name of Kennedy or Mac Cuaric, who was a smith, residing at Lianachan in Lochaber’, who

was coming home from setting a salmon net in the river when a Glaistig met him on the bank of the stream (Campbell 1900:168). He locked his arms around her, and would not let her go till she built for him a large barn, which was built from flags and stones from the shore of Clianaig waterfall. Since ‘he knew the pranks and enchantments of the Fairies’ he kept a coulter in the fire. Going past the window in front

She stretched him her crooked palm

To bid him farewell,

But (truly) to take him to the shïen (fairy mound)

The skin of her palm stuck to it (the coulter);

She sprang then on a grey stone

Of the Field, to pronounce his doom.

She brought the curse of the people on him, And the curse of the goblins …

‘I am the sorrowing Glaistig

That staid in the land of the Meadow,

I built a big house on the Field,

Which caused a sore pain in my side,

I will put out my heart’s blood,

High on the peak of Finisgeig,

Which will be red for evermore’

(quoted in Campbell 1900:170-1).

The Glaistig is often said to be half-woman, half goat (Briggs 1977:191). A strikingly similar story is told of St Dunstan and the Devil in the East Sussex village, Mayfield. The Devil appeared to Dunstan in the guise of a pretty maiden as he beat iron in his forge. Dunstan spotted the cloven hooves under her skirts, whereupon he, in an act like the smith Kennedy in Lochaber, grabbed iron tongs out of his forge and pinched the Devil around the nose: ‘neoliffic smith and magdalenian jinnyjones’ (FW* 576. 36). Whereupon the Devil howled in pain and flew off, cooling her nose in the springs at Tunbridge Wells, ‘his gnose’s glow’ sliding ‘luciferiously’ (FW 182.4-5) into the water: ‘big smoke and lickley roesthy’ (FW 577.12-13). These are chalybeate springs – rich in iron – leaving a red stain, said to have been caused by the Devil’s red nose:

Hellsbells, I’m sorry I missed her! … Was her naze alight? Everyone that saw her said the dowce little delia looked a bit queer. Lotsy trotsy, mind the poddle!… Fenny poor hex she must have charred

(FW 208.27-31).

Here, in this passage from the Wake, as well as the Taoist ‘watercourse way’ of Lao Tse can be found the unification of the watery (fenny) and fiery (charred) triangles in the form of the hexagram, or Solomon’s Seal: ‘the marmade’s flamme!’ (FW 464.6). De Pina-Cabral, writing of goat-footed female enchantresses in Portuguese folklore, known as Mooresses, notes a definite continuity between stories of rock-dwelling Mooresses and those of devilish apparitions (de Pina-Cabral 1987:728). Likewise, the Basque mythological figure Mari – ‘jefe o reina de todos genios’ – has goat’s feet and controls weather, especially rain and hail (Barandiaran 1960, in Tuite 1998:456). In the story of St Dunstan and ‘the Devil’ a similar continuity may be evident as Dunstan, the alchemist, creates the prima materia, from the ‘luciferiously’ fallen sparks, personified in the goat-footed ‘shebeen queen’ (FW 68.21-22) who ultimately beholds her own countenance in the ‘blushing’ springs in Kent:

Health is never found in the world save when the countenances (Macroprosopus and Microprosopus) mutually behold each other

(MacGregor Mathers 1926:304).

Joyce’s characterisation of Issy, the ‘Linkingclass girl’, whose ‘shellback thimblecasket mirror only can show her dearest friendeen’ (FW 561.16-17) was probably influenced by the etymology of

The ambiguous ISSI, YSSE, ISSE, or Issa… related to ESSE, the Latin verb ‘to be’, and from esse is derived the word Essence, a philosophic and poetic synonym for the Soul or ‘Light within … A personification of the soul, the spark, the ‘God within’ … The word-play upon Issi, ‘the light’, and ISSI, ‘himself’, is comparable to Cinderella’s amazed awakening to the fact that the glory of her dazing radiance is ‘herself’

(Bayley 1912:280).

In Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Duessa enjoys the narcissistic pleasures of her mirror (Dobin 1990: 84). So the story conveys elements of the gnosis which Joyce weaves around the clear spring – fiunishgue – with its association with ‘finish’, and the new red beginning of the flaming phoenix implicated in personal and social transformation, in fairy-tale terms, ‘redritualhoods’ (FW 33.1). A similar etymological pattern pertains to the finishing point of the Glaistig on the red peak of Finisgeig.

A detail from here

These are aspects of the process of tikkun Joyce/Shem engages in through his textual alchemy in which ‘the path to the end of all things, is also the path to the beginning’ (Löwy 1992:16).

The springs were said to have been ‘discovered’ by Lord North, a member of James I’s court in 1606. They are 50 yards from the meeting of the boundaries of three parishes and a manor, and the old county boundary of Kent and Sussex. Together, the Scottish and Kent/Sussex narratives hint at a distinct genre of stories revolving around smithcraft and the extraction of the red stone needed for the practice: Mayfield is in an old centre of the iron industry, the iron that fairies are traditionally averse to. The land the spring was found on belonged to the Earl of Abergavenny, providing another lexical coincidence, as this Welsh place name translates as ‘the mouth of the river of smiths’. The Mayfield story fits in with the appropriation of classical pagan themes in Renaissance and early modern Europe. If set to music perhaps it would sound like Scène des forges from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s tragédie lyrique, Isis (1677), composed under the patronage of Louis XIV, the Sun King. The epic plot recounts the misadventures of the nymph, Io, loved by Jupiter, but forced to flee the wrath of Juno. She ends up in Egypt, where she is deified under the name of Isis. In one musical tableau Io finds herself in the ringing forge of the Chalybes – ‘A river of fire is about to engulf me!’ (trans Bardoni 2002:35). Overwhelmed by the excessive harshness of the smithy, she cries:

Could I not end my life? Let me seek death by drowning!

(ibid 37).

The mythological career of Io condenses the major themes of this thesis. When Hera charged Zeus with infidelity over his love for Io, he turns Io into a white cow, which Hera claimed as hers. Subsequently released by Hermes Io wanders Asia, Europe and Africa, reaching Ethiopia. Thence she travelled down from the sources of the Nile to find rest in Egypt, where Zeus returned her to human form, to be deified as Isis (Graves 1960:190-191). One story relates that, as a cow, she changed her colour from white to violet-red, and from violet-red to black (ibid:191).

The transformation of matter, the wandering, the three colours of the Great Work, presents a cluster of associations which, in a hypersynchronous dimension, suggests cosmological affinities between the eastern Mediterranean and the ‘world’s end’ on the Atlantic shore in the Neolithic. Short of that, the possible connection between the construction of ‘folklore’ and the ‘Rosicrucian’ temper around the court of Elizabeth I and James I invites exploration. The interface between ‘popular mysticism’ and ‘elite mysticism’, if such a distinction is valid, may explain how such a narrative/geographical conjunction should revolve around the creation of Royal Tunbridge Wells. The career of ‘the queen’s conjuror’, John Dee is suggestive in this regard. He felt a special affinity for St Dunstan, the patron saint of the City church around which he had played as a boy (Woolley 2001:190). Just before his death, a date usually given as December 1608, and two years after the red waters at Tunbridge Wells were ‘discovered’, he identified a mysterious book, found by Edward Kelley on the direction of a ‘spiritual creature’, as being written by St Dunstan. Also discovered, Kelley revealed, was a red substance variously described as a ‘powder’, ‘earth’ and a ‘congealed thing’. It was later claimed to be a sample of the much sought-after alchemical tincture, the Philosopher’s Stone, that turned base metal into gold, and dead matter into living (Woolley 2001:190). A century later, the story circulated that these ‘monuments’ had been found buried among the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, a tale no doubt reinforced by the connection with St Dunstan, a courtier to King Athelstan, who was exiled following accusations of sorcery, before being made Abbot of Glastonbury (ibid:191). Glastonbury itself is known for a chalybeate spring, at the foot of the Tor, known as the Chalice Well. It was in use from prehistoric times (Rahtz 1993:107). A wooden lid over the well shaft is framed by the wrought iron vesica piscis design of Frederick Bligh Bond (Benham 1993:163), consecrated in 1919, and an ‘accidental concession’ from the lap of ALP, so to speak.

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In fact there is some correlation between mineral springs and practices to save the ‘fruit’ or the ‘substance’ of cattle, that is, their ability to give milk. In parts of Highland Scotland the practice was to obtain an ‘iron ever’ or ‘salacher iron’, that is, a stone which was dirty with iron deposit. To get this the wife went to some mineral spring to find what she was looking for. On her return home she placed it in a basin and poured hot water over it. A thick dirty fluid was got by the solution of the outside crust. She then went to the byre, and with a worsted cloth applied the solution from this ‘iron-ever’ stone to the cow’s udder, and the result was that the milk supply was safe for the future (Polson 1926:65). The Campbells of Ardvorlich possessed a charmed stone, which was known throughout Perthshire as the Red Stone of Ardvorlich. This stone was most efficacious in curing ailing cattle or sheep; but it also won a reputation for relieving human distempers. The cure was ensured by the drinking of water in which the Clach Dearg, or Red Stone, had been dipped (MacGregor 1947: 321-322).

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Perhaps Lord North’s discovery of the wells should be seen as a moment in the appropriation of the commons, on the part of ‘improving’ landlords, and a landlord-in-chief, the monarch. The springs were located in what was unenclosed Wealden forest and were ‘discovered’ at a time when ‘disafforestment’ was a threat to the patterns of living of forest inhabitants, ‘enfranchised…to liberties of fringes’ (FW 548.19), a social programme that James I pressed the House of Commons to extend in 1610 (Hill 1975:51). As an Elizabethan surveyor said of the cottagers in Rockingham Forest, ‘so long as they may be permitted to live in such idleness upon their stock of cattle, they will bend themselves to no labour’ (Hill 1975:50). Ultimately, a ‘babbling pumpt of platinism’ (FW 164.11), probably already known to the ‘people of the forest’ in the wilds of the Weald, but on land owned by Lord Abergavenny, became a resort for the Court. In Polyolbion Drayton bemoaned ‘the vile decay … of whole forests’, including the forests of the Weald, ‘to ruin lastly sold’, to be cut down in the interests of mining (Hill 1996:93). As a ‘taming of the wild’ it resonates in the disgust that informs many Renaissance representations of childbirth and the womb (Harris 1994:213), virulently expressed in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen:

Red Cross Knight has barely left the Faerie court (that is, he is in the marginal zone between ‘civility’ and ‘barbarity’) when he stumbles upon Errour, a ‘lothsom, filthie, foule’ monster (1.1.14.9), half serpent, half woman. Attacking him by spewing out a vile-smelling ‘floud of poyson horrible and black’ (1.1.20.2), Errour then proceeds to pour ‘forth out of her hellish sinke/Her fruitfull cursed spawne of serpents small,/Deformed monsters, fowle and black as inke’ (1.1.22.5-7)

(Harris 1994:213).

In the literary trope that identifies woman as ‘nature’ to man’s ‘culture’ the ‘leaping lasso’ of the ‘feminine libido’ (FW 123.6, 8) is ‘sternly controlled and easily repersuaded by the uniform matteroffactness of a meandering male fist’ (FW 123.9-10). Imposing order on the unpredictable arabesques of woman (Rabaté 1991:132) the victory of day at the ‘end’ of the Wake demands clarity: ‘For newmanmaun set a marge to the merge of unnotions’ (FW 614.15-7).

(* All quotations from Finnegans Wake are identified by FW, then page and line number).

Returning to La Gran’mère, she is associated with a double well, the Belliuese, an abreuveur (‘cattle watering place’) which arises on the edge of a field at the foot of the knoll upon which the church of St Martin stands.

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So, as a holy, cattle watering place, the Bellieuse links La Gran’mère to the Glaistig, the otherwordly female guardian of the cows in Scottish folklore, the shadow of a universal provider cast out by a patriarchal religion exemplified by St Dunstan and that zealous church warden of St Martin’s in the nineteenth century.

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