Symbolism of Hands

Whenever you’re watching a documentary which anonymises its subjects, the camera often tips down to emphasise the hands. What are the hands doing? Picking at fingernails? In a tight grip? Relaxed and open? This close up on the hands is clearly meant to say something about emotional affect.

It’s also interesting to take a look at hands as they appear in advertising.

Why did Bob Peak emphasise hands in his series of 20th century advertisements for 7UP lemonade? He also emphasises masculinity. Could the emphasis on hands be to convey agency and the almost subliminal message that we should being using our own empty hands to get up and do something, ideally to grab a bottle of lemonade?

Bob Peake wasn’t the first to make use of the powerful hand to sell fizz. Here’s an earlier example selling Coca-Cola. (Same company. I’m guessing a different artist.)

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Symbolism of Green

Elmer Cecil Stoner Green Mask

What does green symbolise in art and storytelling?

  • Unripe (and by extension, naïve)
  • Vital and vigorous (because Greek ‘chloros’ may have mostly meant ‘having sap’, independent of colour). By extension, green can symbolise youth. Young things tend to be moist (sorry) whereas old things tend to be dry (also sorry, blame those Ancient Greeks).
  • Latin for ‘green ‘ is viridis. This becomes verdant in English. This may have meant youthful and vigorous as well as naïve, but thanks to that age-old gender hierarchy, ‘virile’ and ‘manliness’ are overlapping ideas. ‘Virile’ and ‘virtue’ are also related.
From The Australian Women's Weekly, March 19, 1975 green glasses
From The Australian Women’s Weekly, March 19, 1975. Green-tinted glasses. I bet he tells everyone, “You look a little peaky today.”
  • It gets worse. Since green can mean virtue and naivety, it follows that green can also symbolise virginity, a bullshit concept made up to control people, mainly women.
  • Green symbolises spring, hence the adjective ‘vernal’. The common Latin idea with this family of ‘v’ words is ‘juicy’ or ‘sappy’.
  • Many landscapes remain green over summer (not here in Australia, where we should be using Aboriginal concepts of seasonality) but anyway, green can symbolise summer as well as spring.
  • There’s a famous medieval poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem may have come from a pop-culture idea of the time: belief in a Green Man who represents the seasonal cycle. (For a contemporary picture book example of personified seasons see The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg.)
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Blood Symbolism

BLOOD AS SYMBOL OF LIFE

Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Apollonia (born 460 BCE) thought of life as pneuma coursing through vessels. In Stoic thought, pneuma is the vital spirit, soul, or creative force of a person.

Many fourth-, fifth- and sixth-century thinkers are called “Pythagoreans” in the Greek tradition after the fourth century BCE. These Pythagoreans (Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle et al) thought the soul was nourished by blood.

raspberry buns with jam seeping out of the bread

Empedocles (400s BCE) was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher. He is best known for originating the cosmogonic theory of the four classical elements. He had some wacky ideas about blood and its purpose. He thought blood was the seat of perception. Warm blood was involved in nourishing the body, digesting food, and even let the body respire and think. Technically, he wasn’t wrong? The key wacky thing being, Empedocles thought blood was the physical basis by which all of these things happened, and also the physical basis of consciousness. He believed blood contained the four material elements: fire, air, earth, water. These elements governed the entire universe, so blood was the most important aspect of humanity and life and existence and nature. Basically, Empedocles thought blood was really, really important. Blood connected humans to the world around them.

We know that during the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1250 AD) people thought of the body more like a mould, into which blood was poured, bringing the ‘mould’ to life. As evidence we have devotional writing. (Caroline Walker Bynum writes about this in Wonderful Blood, 2007). In one 14th century story from Germany, angels escort a widow to a wine press, squeeze out all of her blood and replace it with virginal blood. Now she’s a virgin again. (This presumably improves her remarriage prospects and therefore her socioeconomic status.) Obviously, this story didn’t really happen (at least, I hope not) but the fact that this story exists offers insight into how people of that time thought of blood and the body. To exchange blood is literally to become a different person.

Blood as a symbol of life can be seen in classical, Biblical and Medieval thought.

In the Hebrew Bible, the tribes of Israel are not allowed to eat blood.

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the alter; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

Leviticus 17:11

In Medieval Christianity, blood spritually nourished Christians in the same way that mothers nourish babies with milk. Although blood and milk may seem to be very different substances, they are not. Their colours are nothing alike, and are symbolically quite often opposite. In fact, breastmilk has many shared properties with blood. Colostrum, the earliest form of breast milk contains 1 to 5 million white blood cells per milliliter. (Breast milk is constantly changing to adapt to babies’ growth.) So when Medieval Christians started the tradition of forming community around the drinking of God’s (symbolic) blood in the performance of the Eucharist (aka Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper), perhaps this spoke to a deeper biological knowledge.

Christ is both priest and sacrifice. His body and blood are truly contained in the sacramane of the alter under the forms of bread and wine having been changed in substance, by God’s power, into his body and blood, so that in order to achieve this mystery of unity we receive from God what he received from us.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215)

Why is Christ’s blood so important? It is thought that his blood is able to give life, even without his body. This is an affirmation of his divine status.

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The Symbolism of Water Wells

Henry John Yeend King - By the Well

In folklore and fairy tale, round, enclosed structures (towers and wells) align with lunar figures which stand in for cyclic time i.e. dragons, serpents, werewolves or other related creatures who abduct maidens. And also, by the way, dishevelled hair and shaggy furs worn as garments are the other symbol set which go hand-in-hand with round, enclosed structures. These symbols are associated with moon phases, menstrual cycles and, more broadly, renewal through death.

(All of that is an excellent example of how symbols tend to appear in clusters rather than in isolation.)

In a very deep well you can see a star even on the brightest day.

IVAN’S CHILDHOOD | ANDREI TARKOVSKY (1962)
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The Symbolism of Dolls In Storytelling

Charles Haigh Wood - Storytime 1893

Dolls serve as comfort; they also creep us out. Which is it gonna be? And how do storytellers utilise their multivalent presence in our lives?

Outside the West, dolls are sometimes a part of supernatural/religious belief. Perhaps the most memorable and oft-utilised by storytellers is the Haitian vodou usage, which has been heavily simplified for Western audiences. Likewise, the concept of the ‘gwumu’ in Papua New Guinea is complex, and ‘doll’ is a substandard translation:

People describe gwumu as an agency hiding inside the body of another: it may be referred to as a “doll” for example, and an additional idiom I recorded referred to these familiars as “little sisters”. Though gwumu are held to be concealed in the interior of persons, they may nevertheless sometimes be seen as apparitions, especially when they have left the body of a person to hunt.

Becoming Witches
Honor C. Appleton for 'Josephine's birthday' (1900)
Honor C. Appleton for ‘Josephine’s birthday’ (1900)
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A Glossary of The Underworld

Since we’re all going to hell (by someone’s rules), here is a glossary of terms you may need before you get there. I’d provide a map, but that is coming.

The book of wonder, a chronicle of little adventures at the edge of the world ca.1915 by Lord Dunsany illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The book of wonder, a chronicle of little adventures at the edge of the world ca.1915 by Lord Dunsany illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The book of wonder, a chronicle of little adventures at the edge of the world ca.1915 by Lord Dunsany illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The book of wonder, a chronicle of little adventures at the edge of the world ca.1915 by Lord Dunsany illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
ACHERON

One of the Five Rivers of the Realm of Hades, according to Ancient Greeks. This is an actual river located in northwest Greece. The Ancient Greeks called it the ‘river of woe’. Homer and Virgil contributed to the mythology around it. Virgil called it the main river of Tartarus, which is where you go if you’ve been bad.

ASPHODEL MEADOWS

Of the Fields of Asphodel. According to Ancient Greek thought, this is the part of the Underworld where ordinary people are sent.

AVERNUS

The Romans geolocated the place where Virgil’s Aeneus is meant to have entered the Underworld, and they reckon the entrance is located at a placed called Avernus, a crater near Cumae. To the Romans, Aeneus refers to Hell/The Underworld.

BASEMENT

The symbolic underworld of the dream house is the basement. Naturally, stories with basements are more frequently found in fiction written by authors who live in countries where houses tend to have basements. Canadian writer Alice Munro makes use of this in her short story “Cortes Island“. Her main character lives in a basement, but the fairytale upon which is seems based takes its main character to the underworld.

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Words to Describe Landscapes, Landforms, Water and Construction

Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935

(Includes bodies of water.) You may be after a full glossary of landforms, in which case the Wikipedia article is comprehensive: Full list of landforms at Wikipedia. This post skews literary.

Be aware, especially since you’re probably a wide reader and will have picked up words from all over the place, that words to describe landforms are highly regional.

ALLUVION

the flow of water against a shore or bank; inundation by water; flood; the increasing of land area along a shore by deposited alluvium or by the recession of water.

Arroyo

(colloquial: southwestern United States) The channel of a flat-floored, ephemeral
stream, commonly with very steep to vertical banks cut in unconsolidated material;
sometimes called a wash. It is usually dry but can be transformed into a temporary
watercourse or short-lived torrent after heavy rain within the watershed. Where arroyos
intersect zones of ground-water discharge, they are more properly classed as intermittent
stream channels.

Eyvind Earle (American, 1916–2000) Arroyo c. 1978 Oil on Masonite 91x61cm
Ash field

A land area covered by a relatively thick or distinctive, surficial deposit of
volcanic ash (air fall) that can be traced to a specific source and has well defined boundaries. An ash field can be distinguished from adjacent landforms or land areas based on ash thickness, mineral composition, and physical characteristics. Soils within an ash field form solely or predominantly within the ash deposit.

Aspect

The direction toward which a slope faces with respect to the compass or to the
rays of the Sun; also called slope aspect.

Atoll

A coral reef appearing in plan view as roughly circular, and surmounted by a chain
of closely spaced, low coral islets that encircle or nearly encircle a shallow lagoon in which
there is no land or islands of non-coral origin; the reef is surrounded by open sea.

Backshore

The upper or inner, usually dry, zone of the shore or beach, lying between the
high-water line of mean spring tides and the upper limit of shore-zone processes; it is acted
upon by waves or covered by water only during exceptionally severe storms or unusually
high tides. It is essentially horizontal or slopes gently landward, and is divided from the
foreshore by the crest of the most seaward berm.

Backslope

The hillslope profile position that forms the steepest and generally linear,
middle portion of the slope. In profile, backslopes are commonly bounded by a convex
shoulder above and a concave footslope below. They may or may not include cliff segments
(i.e., free faces). Backslopes are commonly erosional forms produced by mass movement,
colluvial action, and running water. Compare – summit, shoulder, footslope, toeslope.

Backswamp

A flood-plain landform. Extensive, marshy or swampy, depressed areas of
flood plains between natural levees and valley sides or terraces. Compare – valley flat

Badlands

A landscape that is intricately dissected and characterized by a very fine
drainage network with high drainage densities and short, steep slopes with narrow interfluves. Badlands develop on surfaces with little or no vegetative cover, overlying unconsolidated or poorly cemented materials.

Bay

a recessed, coastal body of water that directly connects to a larger main body of water, such as an ocean, a lake, or another bay. A large bay is usually called a gulf, sea, sound, or bight. A fjord is a particularly steep bay shaped by glacial activity. See: At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield.

Beck

(Northern English) a stream

Berm

Berms are mounded hills of soil that are often constructed to serve a purpose in a landscaped area. They can be used for aesthetics, excess rainwater drainage, separating different areas of the garden, accent walkways, and as foundations for privacy screens.

Boreen

(Irish) a narrow country road

Bower

a pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood

Brook

a small stream

The Black Brook c.1908 John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
The Black Brook c.1908 John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
BROW

The summit of a hill or pass.

A long and gently sloping hill stretched before him, and as he reaching its brow he paused to take some sort of bearing.

“The Lady of the Bells”, Weird Magazine, 1939
Buffalo wallow

A buffalo wallow or bison wallow is a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff. Originally this would have served as a temporary watering hole for wildlife, including the American bison.

Burn

Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A burn is a stream. (cf. Robbie Burns)

BUTTE

A butte is formed when a mesa is further eroded until the formation is taller than it is wide. Buttes tend to be isolated from other structures, with steep sides and a flat top. 

Camber

The slightly convex or arched shape of a road or other horizontal surface.”A bend where the camber of the road sloped to a ditch.” British: a tilt built into a road at a bend or curve, enabling vehicles to maintain speed.

Canal

an artificial waterway constructed to allow the passage of boats or ships inland or to convey water for irrigation.

The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) The House on the Canal c. 1960
Louis Aston Knight - Sunny Afternoon on the Canal
Louis Aston Knight – Sunny Afternoon on the Canal
Canyon

A deep cleft (gorge), between escarpments or cliffs resulting from weathering and the erosive activity of a river over geologic time scales. Typically a canyon has a river flowing through it. See “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The People Across The Canyon” for two short stories in which the canyon comes to the fore.

Hatchet meets Long Way Down in this heartfelt and gripping novel in verse about a young girl’s struggle for survival after a climbing trip with her father goes terribly wrong.

One year after a random shooting changed their family forever, Nora and her father are exploring a slot canyon deep in the Arizona desert, hoping it will help them find peace. Nora longs for things to go back to normal, like they were when her mother was still alive, while her father keeps them isolated in fear of other people. But when they reach the bottom of the canyon, the unthinkable happens: A flash flood rips across their path, sweeping away Nora’s father and all of their supplies.

Suddenly, Nora finds herself lost and alone in the desert, facing dehydration, venomous scorpions, deadly snakes, and, worst of all, the Beast who has terrorized her dreams for the past year. If Nora is going to save herself and her father, she must conquer her fears, defeat the Beast, and find the courage to live her new life.

Zhang Zhen Qi, Glen (Heilongjiang Province, China, undated canyon
Zhang Zhen Qi, Glen (Heilongjiang Province, China, undated canyon
Cleugh

Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A cleugh is a gorge which is the shape of the course of a stream.

Cliff

a vertical, or nearly vertical, rock exposure. Cliffs are formed as erosion landforms by the processes of weathering and erosion. Cliffs are common on coasts, in mountainous areas, escarpments and along rivers. Cliffs are usually formed by rock that is resistant to weathering and erosion. Sedimentary rocks most likely to form cliffs include sandstone, limestone, chalk, and dolomite. Igneous rocks such as granite and basalt also often form cliffs.

LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
John Brett - Carthillon Cliffs
John Brett – Carthillon Cliffs
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 - 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 – 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour
Clump

a small group of trees or plants growing closely together

1912 Wittenham Clumps, Paul Nash, UK
1912 Wittenham Clumps, Paul Nash, UK
1912 The Wood on the Hill, Paul Nash, UK
1912 The Wood on the Hill, Paul Nash, UK
Coast

the part of the land adjoining or near the sea.

Peder Mørk Mønsted (Danish, 1859 - 1941) Coastal View, 1900
Peder Mørk Mønsted (Danish, 1859 – 1941) Coastal View, 1900
Col

the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks (of hills rather than mountains). A drainage divide.

Colonnade

a row or evenly spaced trees

Conurbation

a city surrounded by many urban areas

Coteau

uplands; higher ground of a region

Coulée

a steep and dry gully

Couloir

gully

Counterscarp

narrow earth band on the outer wall of a defensive ditch

Cove

a small type of bay or coastal inlet. Coves usually have narrow, restricted entrances, are often circular or oval, and are often situated within a larger bay. Think cove, think ‘sheltered’.

Kobliha František, Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Kobliha František, Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945
CREEK

A narrow, sheltered waterway, especially an inlet in a shoreline or channel in a marsh. In America it means a stream or minor tributary of a river.

A spring as clear as well water bubbled up from nowhere in the sand. It was as though the banks cupped green leafy hands to hold it. There was a whirlpool where the water rose from the earth. Grains of sand boiled in it. Beyond the bank, the parent spring bubbled up at a higher level, cut itself a channel through white limestone and began to run rapidly down-hill to make a creek. The creek joined Lake George, Lake George was a part of the St. John’s River, the great river flowed northward and into the sea. It excited Jody to watch the beginning of the ocean. There were other beginnings, true, but this one was his own. He liked to think that no one came here but himself and the wild animals and the thirsty birds.

The Yearling (1938)
Crest

the top of a mountain or hill. Also used as a verb e.g. ‘Crest the rise’. This word is used to mean the hillslope component summit, but geologists don’t approve of that usage. When geologists say ‘crest’ they specifically mean the narrow top of a ridge, hill or mountain.

Crevasse

A wide breach or crack in the bank of a river or canal. A crevasse can naturally occur or it can be created artificially (e.g. in the bank of the lower Mississippi River.) Also refers to a wide, deep break or fissure in the earth that appears after an earthquake. When talking about glaciers, a crevasse is a deep, nearly vertical fissure, crack or break in the mass of land ice.

Crista

ridge or fold resembling a crest

Cutbank

In everyday usage cutbank refers to a small cliff on an otherwise flattish surface which will injure you or your horse if you don’t see it, but probably isn’t big enough to kill you outright. Larry McMurtry frequently makes use of this word in his cowboy novels. Geologists don’t use cutbank to mean this. In geology, a cutbank is a slope or wall portion of a cut excavated into unconsolidated material or bedrock, as in a borrow pit.

Dale

“up hill and down dale”. A dale is a valley, especially in northern England (e.g. The Yorkshire Dales.) A valley can feel closed in, but a dale is a wide, open area that stretches between hills. (Dale comes from the Old English word for “valley,” dæl.)

Debris

Any surficial accumulation of loose material detached from rock masses by
chemical and mechanical means, as by decay and disintegration. It consists of rock clastic
material of any size and sometimes organic matter.

Delta

A body of alluvium, nearly flat and fan-shaped, deposited at or near the mouth of a
river or stream where it enters a body of relatively quiet water, usually a sea or lake.

Delta plain

The level or nearly level surface composing the land-ward part of a large
delta; strictly, a flood plain characterized by repeated channel bifurcation and divergence,
multiple distributary channels, and interdistributary flood basins.

Deposit

Either consolidated or unconsolidated material of any type that has accumulated by natural processes or by human activity.

Depression

Any relatively sunken part of the earth’s surface; especially a low-lying area
surrounded by higher ground. A closed depression has no natural outlet for surface drainage (e.g., a sinkhole). An open depression has a natural outlet for surface drainage. You can get closed depressions and open depressions.

Desert pavement

A natural, residual concentration or layer of wind-polished, closely
packed gravel, boulders, and other rock fragments, mantling a desert surface. It is formed
where wind action and sheetwash have removed all smaller particles or where rock fragments have migrated upward through sediments to the surface. It usually protects the underlying, finer-grained material from further deflation.

Detritus

A collective term for rock and mineral fragments occurring in sediments, that are detached or removed by mechanical means (e.g., disintegration, abrasion) and derived from preexisting rocks and moved from their place of origin.

Dell

a small valley, usually among trees. ‘There’s a sort of dell down here in front of us, where the ground seems all hilly and humpy and hummocky.’ (The Wind In The Willows)

Dike

A tabular igneous intrusion that cuts across the bedding or foliation of the country rock. Cf. sill.

Dingle

(literary) a deep wooded valley or dell

1949 The Dingle Winter John Nash
Nash, John Northcote; The Dingle Winter; Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-dingle-winter-82546
Dip

A geomorphic component (characteristic piece) of flat plains (e.g. lake
plain, low coastal plain, low-relief till plain) consisting of a shallow and typically closed
depression that tends to be an area of focused groundwater recharge but not a permanent
water body and that lies slightly lower and is wetter than the adjacent talf (flat part), and favors the accumulation of fine sediments and organic materials.

Dip slope

A slope of the land surface, roughly determined by and approximately
conforming to the dip of underlying bedded rocks; (i.e., the long, gently inclined surface of a
cuesta). Cf. scarp slope.

Ditch

a landform created by running water. Smaller than a gully, which is smaller than a ravine.

Jan van Goyen (1596 - 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627
Jan van Goyen (1596 – 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627
DOWN GRADE

American: a downward gradient on a railway or road.

The down grade tempted him to a lope. 

The Yearling 1938
Draw

(US). a terrain feature formed by two parallel ridges or spurs with low ground in between them. The area of low ground itself is the draw, and it is defined by the spurs surrounding it. Draws are similar to valleys on a smaller scale; however, while valleys are by nature parallel to a ridgeline, a draw is perpendicular to the ridge, and rises with the surrounding ground, disappearing up-slope. A draw is usually etched in a hillside by water flow, is usually dry, but many contain an ephemeral stream or loose rocks from eroded rockfall. A draw may be described as ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’.

ESTUARY

the tidal mouth of a large river, where the tide meets the stream

Henry Dawson - Salcombe Estuary, South Devon
Henry Dawson – Salcombe Estuary, South Devon
Embankment

‘a railway embankment’ (the little hill which elevates a railway line)

Escarpment

a long, steep slope, especially one at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights. Commonly formed by faulting or fracturing of the earth’s crust. (Compare scarp)

Flat

An area of low level ground, especially near water. e.g. “the shingle flats of the lake”

Freshet

the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow

Fold

sheep walked up the lane and into the fold

FORD

a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across

The Ford  by Thomas Creswick 1811-1869
The Ford by Thomas Creswick 1811-1869
Gap

a low point or opening between hills or mountains or in a ridge or mountain range. It may be called a col, notch, pass, saddle, water gap, or wind gap, and geomorphologically are most often carved by water erosion from a freshet, stream or a river.

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised.
Glen

A ‘narrow valley’, especially in Scotland or Ireland. (Glens are basically flat areas with gentle slopes either side leading up to small hills.)

He was warm from his jaunt. The dusky glen laid cool hands on him. 

The Yearling (1938)
GOYLE

You’ll find this word in work by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Goyal is a spelling variant for goyle, which means a steep, narrow valley cf. ravine, gully.

Riding slowly in this fashion they came at last upon the hounds. These, though known for their valour and their breed, were whimpering in a cluster at the head of a deep dip or goyal, as we call it, upon the moor, some slinking away and some, with starting hackles and staring eyes, gazing down the narrow valley before them.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles
Grain

a Scottish word for a tributary; the branch or fork of a stream or river, an arm of the sea.

Grange

(British) a country house with farm buildings attached. (Historical) an outlying farm with tithe barns belonging to a monastery or feudal lord

Sidney Richard Percy - Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874
Sidney Richard Percy – Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874
Gulch

a narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream. ‘…two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch…’ (“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”)

Gully

a landform created by running water, eroding sharply into soil, typically on a hillside. Gullies resemble large ditches or small valleys, but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width.

Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children's Stories
Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children’s Stories
Heath

(British) an area of open uncultivated land, typically on acid sandy soil, with characteristic vegetation of heather, gorse, and coarse grasses.

On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887
On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887
Hill

A hill is a landform that extends above the surrounding terrain. It often has a distinct summit.

Hollow

Another name for a valley. In literature, functions similarly to words like ‘gap’, symbolically/metaphorically suggesting an absence of something. See: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. A very small dale (a British term) is sometimes called a “hollow,” pronounced “holler” in American rural Appalachia.

Howard W. Thomas 'Nauvoo Hollow', Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938
Howard W. Thomas ‘Nauvoo Hollow’, Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938

Many years ago, in the kingdom of Fenwood Reach, there was a powerful Windwitch who wove the seasons, keeping the land bountiful and the people happy. But then a dark magic drove her from the realm, and the world fell into chaos.

Brida is content in her small village of Oak Hollow. There, she’s plenty occupied trying to convince her fickle magic to actually do what it’s meant to in her work as a hedgewitch’s apprentice—until she accidentally catches the attention of the wicked queen.

On the run from the queen’s huntsman and her all-seeing Crow spies, Brida discovers the truth about her family, her magic, and who she is destined to be—and that she may hold the power to defeating the wicked queen and setting the kingdom right again.

Hummock

a hump or ridge in an ice field. (US) a piece of forested ground rising above a marsh.

Isthmus

a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land.

Jungle

An area of land overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, typically in the tropics. See: The Storybook Jungle for visual representations of jungles as they tend to appear in storybooks. Jungles are best suited to tree-dwelling apes, because food is found high off the ground (compared to the savanna).

Knob

a prominent round hill.

Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 - 1989)
Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 – 1989).
Lagoon

a stretch of salt water separated from the sea by a low sandbank or coral reef. In mythology and storytelling, lagoons tend to be associated with mermaids.

Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon
Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon
An Island in the Lagoon with a Gateway and a Church, Canaletto, oil on canvas, 1743
An Island in the Lagoon with a Gateway and a Church, Canaletto, oil on canvas, 1743
Lane

a narrow road, especially in a rural area

John Constable - Fen Lane, East Bergholt
John Constable – Fen Lane, East Bergholt
Lee

the sheltered side of something; the side away from the wind.

Lovely Is The Lee by Robert Gibbings
MEADOW

A piece of grassland, especially one used for hay. Also, a piece of low ground near a river.

Flower meadow in a book by Peter Leitheim
Flower meadow in a book by Peter Leitheim
MERE

(Chiefly British) an expanse of standing water : lake, pool.

The papers may ask why the mere was not dragged in the first instance, but it is easy to be wise after the event, and in any case the expanse of a reed-filled lake is no easy matter to drag unless you have a clear perception of what you are looking for and where.

“The Problem of Thor Bridge”, Arthur Conan Doyle
MESA

The mesa might be the most common geological formation found across the American West. A mesa is a large, isolated, flat-topped hill or mountain, usually with steep slopes. Mesas are formed when the forces of erosion remove the softer sediment from around a harder caprock.

Maynard Dixon (January 24, 1875 – November 11, 1946) was an American artist whose body of work focused on the American West
Maynard Dixon
Maynard Dixon
Mire

A stretch of swampy or boggy ground. From that, a verb: To be stuck in mud, unable to break free. Etymologically related to the old Germanic word for moss.

Moor

(Chiefly British) a tract of open uncultivated upland, typically covered with heather. A moor is untilled. Think Wuthering Heights, Hound of the Baskervilles. Mary Lennox’s uncle in The Secret Garden lives in the Yorkshire Moors. The word ‘wutherin’ is used there, too: “Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house”. (Yorkshire dialect.) When trees are cleared from the uplands, heavy rain washes soil off the hills and into the valleys below, leaving a much reduced mineral fertility and turning the uplands into sodden bleak moors that resist the return of woodland. Moors therefore include the feeling of saudade (something missing, something which was once here but is no longer).

after each breakfast she gazed out of the window across to the huge moor, which seemed to spread out on all sides and climb up to the sky

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

In The Hound Of The Baskervilles, the moor is described as the ‘God-forsaken corner of the world’ and is a stand-in for a Hellish place.

behind the peaceful and sunlit countryside there rose ever, dark against the evening sky, the long, gloomy curve of the moor, broken by the jagged and sinister hills

The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
Mound

a heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris. Most commonly, mounds are earthen formations such as hills and mountains, particularly if they appear artificial. A mound may be any rounded area of topographically higher elevation on any surface. Artificial mounds have been created for a variety of reasons throughout history, including ceremonial, burial (tumulus), and commemorative purposes.

Mountain

A mountain is a large landform that rises above the surrounding land in a limited area, usually in the form of a peak. A mountain is generally considered to be steeper than a hill.

Mountain Pass

mountain pass is a navigable route through a mountain range or over a ridge. Since many of the world’s mountain ranges have presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have played a key role in trade, war, and both human and animal migration throughout history.

Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957
Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957
Notch

a rugged and forbidding col (for mountains rather than hills)

Outcrop

a rock formation. Somewhere like New Mexico is well-known for rocky outcrops.

New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976
New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976
Peninsula

A landform surrounded by water on the majority of its border while being connected to a mainland it juts out from. Peninsulas can also be named: a headland, cape, island promontory, bill, point, fork, or spit. A river which courses through a very tight meander is also sometimes said to form a “peninsula” within the loop of water.

Sir David Murray - My Love has Gone a-Sailing 1883
My Love has Gone a-Sailing exhibited 1883 Sir David Murray 1849-1933
Plateau

In geology and physical geography, a plateau, also called a high plain or a tableland, is an area of a highland consisting of flat terrain, that is raised sharply above the surrounding area on at least one side.

A plateau is also an abstract spatial category.

According to Gaston Bachelard, who wrote the famous book Poetics of Space, a plateau designates a very special “continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end.”

Point

a narrow piece of land jutting out into the sea. A point is generally considered a tapering piece of land projecting into a body of water that is less prominent than a cape.

Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, 'Point Sur' landform
Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, ‘Point Sur’
Pow

Scottish word for a slow-moving stream

Ravine

a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides

ROMANTIC EXPANSE

Lutwack’s notion of faraway horizons, distant hills and the vision of the ocean. (Cf. the Victorian enclosure.) In this normative concept of Victorian space there are geographical features of flatness without extreme slopes such as high mountains or rough seas, as this would represent tumult and high aspirations. These things weren’t desirable to Victorians.

In Victorian novels, family harmony shifts to drawing rooms, whereas romantic illusions and expectations must stay outside. Illusions and expectations are therefore associated with distant hills and mountains or with the sea. The sea is often associated with achieving freedom, but is also associated with danger, threatening a character’s very existence.

See: Leonard Lutwack,The Role of Place in Literature (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1984)

Re-entrant

the international word for a ‘draw’. 

Ridge

a geological feature consisting of a chain of mountains or hills that form a continuous elevated crest for some distance. The sides of the ridge slope away from narrow top on either side. Ridges are usually termed hills or mountains as well, depending on size.

Ridge line

The line along the crest formed by the highest points, with the terrain dropping down on either side, is called the ridgeline.

Saddle

the lowest area between two highlands. 

Sand berm

In coastal systems, a berm is a raised ridge of pebbles or sand found at high tide or storm tide marks on a beach. In snow removal, a berm or windrow refers to the linear accumulation of snow cast aside by a plow.

Savanna

A wide, open, mostly flat landscape. Of all the geographical arenas, savannas contain the highest amount of protein per square kilometer. We can therefore deduce that this is humans’ natural landscape, where we largely evolved, and where we thrive. (Savannas were where we lived when we became meat eaters.) We find our meat at ground level, unlike in jungles, which are better suited to apes who can swing through the trees. Humans are attracted to the savanna in art, though the ideal ‘savanna’ is undulating, probably because high areas afford us a good vantage point, good for safety and hunting.

Scarp

a very steep bank or slope; an escarpment. “The north face is a very steep scarp.” “I got to my car, but before I could get in I had to run to the scarp of grass and weed that surrounded the parking lot.” (Louise Erdrich, “The Years Of My Birth”.)

Shore/Shoreline

the fringe of land at the edge of a large body of water, such as an ocean, sea, or lake. In physical oceanography, a shore is the wider fringe that is geologically modified by the action of the body of water past and present, while the beach is at the edge of the shore, representing the intertidal zone where there is one. In contrast to a coast, a shore can border any body of water, while the coast must border an ocean; in that sense a coast is a type of shore; however, coast often refers to an area far wider than the shore, often stretching miles into the interior.

Sinkhole

A sinkhole, also known as a cenote, sink, sink-hole, swallet, swallow hole, or doline (the different terms for sinkholes are often used interchangeably), is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer.

Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922
Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922
SKERRY

A skerry is a small rocky island, or islet, usually too small for human habitation. It may simply be a rocky reef. A skerry can also be called a low sea stack. The word comes from Old Norse.

Sluice

a sliding gate or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate

1920 The Sluice by Paul Nash, UK
1920 The Sluice by Paul Nash, UK
SPIRE

A spire is a rock tower that has a uniform thickness throughout its height and tapers from the ground upward. Buttes, over time, can be eroded into a spire.

Spur

A spur is a lateral ridge or tongue of land descending from a hill, mountain or main crest of a ridge.

Stank

Scottish word for a pond

Stream

a small, narrow river

Myles Birket Foster - Children Paddling In A Stream
Myles Birket Foster – Children Paddling In A Stream
Syke

Scottish word for a small stream

Tarn

A mountain pool that forms in a hollow scooped out by a glacier is called a tarn. Officially, tarns are smaller than lakes. The word tarn comes from the Old Norse tjörn, “small mountain lake with no tributaries.”

Natural Environment - The Mountain - Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967
Natural Environment – The Mountain – Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967
Trench

A long, narrow ditch. Also, a long, narrow, deep depression in the ocean bed, typically one running parallel to a plate boundary and marking a subduction zone. Trenches have also often been dug for military defensive purposes, so have associations with war and death. Gullies and ditches are wider than trenches.

IVAN'S CHILDHOOD ANDREI TARKOVSKY (1962)  trench
Turlough

(in Ireland) a low-lying area on limestone which becomes flooded in wet weather through the welling up of groundwater from the rock

Valley

a low area between hills or mountains typically with a river running through it. In geology, a valley or dale is a depression that is longer than it is wide. The terms U-shaped and V-shaped are descriptive terms of geography to characterize the form of valleys. Most valleys belong to one of these two main types or a mixture of them, at least with respect to the cross section of the slopes or hillsides.

VICTORIAN ENCLOSURE

In contrast to the Romantic expanse, the Victorian enclosure is based on reassurance. Distance is maintained between nature and humans. Space is concentrated in the house and on family authority. This spatial concept is influenced by the Gothic. Associated motifs: prison, insanity, the threat of destruction.

See: Leonard Lutwack,The Role of Place in Literature (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1984)ro

Volcano

a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.

Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams volcano
Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams
Wind gap

another name for a notch

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header painting: Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935

Symbolism of Coats and Cloaks

The cloak is the garment of Kings, and the King is a symbolic archetype. Fathers and Kings are basically the same archetype in traditional stories. (Fathers are the kings of the home.)

Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s musical Joseph and the Techni-colour Dreamcoat is based on this Biblical story. Artists have taken the concept of the colourful coat and taken it to its extreme. What’s the most colourful coat you can possibly imagine? Why, it’s psychedelic, of course.

Continue reading “Symbolism of Coats and Cloaks”

Wave Symbolism

1917 creepy dude with swimmer

Storytellers have long utilised the symbolism of dreams, which apply equally when we’re awake.

Around the world, we all have a similar visceral reaction to forests, the colour red, skulls… In fiction these universal symbols indeed say something deeper about our collective anxieties and fixations. Same goes for waves.

What is the universal symbol of climate change? I can tell you already. It’s waves. I listened to an interview with an Australian climate change scientist who has recently decided to open up about her climate crisis anxiety. Other climate change scientists have thanked her for her honesty. Sounds like they’re all having these dreams. Dreams about massive waves crashing onto shore. In some dreams this particular scientist is sucked in by the wave; in others she’s trying to run away. 

This imagery is echoed in a British cartoon that came through my feed last month: three waves in increasing order of magnitude, the smallest labeled ‘Pandemic’, the next labeled ‘Brexit’, the biggest labeled ‘Climate Change’.

If you haven’t joined us already, when you start having nightmares about waves, then you’ll know you’re viscerally feeling our climate crisis.

Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett wave
Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett
Continue reading “Wave Symbolism”

Symbolism of Eyes and Foucault’s Panopticon

Most humans are drawn to the eyes and gaze. Eyes therefore feature large in art and storytelling, and sometimes symbolise surveillance.

The gaze is extremely powerful. Artist Marina Abramovic knew this when she sat in an art gallery and stared at people for months.

Harrison Fisher also understood when painting these girls, supposedly having fun, except for the one giving us the stink eye.

Harrison Fisher (1875 or 1877 – 1934) stink eye
Harrison Fisher (1875 or 1877 – 1934) stink eye

Eye contact has been emphasised in psychological research. Take the following experiment, first using a series of questions, interspersed with eye contact, all to induce intimacy between subjects. These 36 questions became widely known after Mandy Len Catron used them as part of the process in getting to know her boyfriend, then wrote an essay about that experience for the New York Time’s Modern Love column. The subjects are required to look each other in the eye. (This is a self-selected group. Many neurodiverse people would avoid an experiment like this.)

A cartoon by Charlie Hankin Unbroken Eye Contact
A cartoon by Charlie Hankin Unbroken Eye Contact

Eye Colour In Fiction

Eye colour is commonly mentioned in thumbnail character sketches. Don’t mention it unless it’s meaningful, and even then, be careful.

The Evil Eye

Colloquially known today as ‘the evils’ (in New Zealand) or ‘stink eye’ (in a funny scene from the film Juno), a threatening gaze or stare was once thought to be so powerful it caused actual harm.

As a result, numerous amulets and charms have been invented, thought to protect one from the harms of the Evil Eye.

Eye contact varies significantly across cultures. Western, neurotypical cultures are commonly, problematically, thought to set the ‘correct default’ when it comes to eye-contact. In the West, eye contact gives the impression of reliability and sincerity. But in many, if not most, cultures around the world, eye-contact is commonly perceived as threatening, and avoiding someone’s gaze is often simply a sign of situationally appropriate submission. For our closest animal relatives, the same holds. This leads me to believe that eye-contact ‘rules’ in my own Western culture default is a contrivance, impressed upon others from leaders in a patriarchy, which always functions best with overt and commonly understood displays of dominance.

Austin artist John Cleveland designed the pyramid-and-eye album cover. The album’s sound, featuring elements of psychedelia, garage rock, folk, and blues, is notable for its use of the electric jug, as featured on the band’s only hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”.
1936-1939 WPA illustration eye poster Keeping Up With Science
1936-1939 WPA illustration Keeping Up With Science
My Eyes in the Time of Apparition by August Natterer 1913
My Eyes in the Time of Apparition by August Natterer 1913
Howl's Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, 2004
Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, 2004

Sanpaku eyes is a Japanese term to describe eyes which show a lot of white above or below the pupils. Transliterated, it means ‘three whites’ (each side as well as above or below). When illustrating a character, it’s a great way to create an ominous look.

Artist unknown, The Walking Dead (Warner Bros., 1936), One Sheet Movie Poster sanpuku eyes
Artist unknown, The Walking Dead (Warner Bros., 1936), One Sheet Movie Poster sanpuku eyes
Carlos Schwabe, July 21, 1866-January 26, 1926, 1900, Paris
Carlos Schwabe, July 21, 1866-January 26, 1926, 1900, Paris
Harry-Clarke-Irish-1889-1931-one-of-his-sublime-illustrations-for-Goethes-Faust-circa-1925
Harry Clarke, Irish. 1889-1931. An illustration for Goethe’s Faust, c. 1925
Illustration by Tancredi Scarpetti, 1932 letter
Illustration by Tancredi Scarpetti, 1932
Georg Tronnier, 1902 ink advertisement
Georg Tronnier, 1902 ink advertisement

Eyeball Warding Off Evil

Apotropes are specific kinds of amulets designed to ward off evil. The word comes from Greek and means ‘turn away’. This amulet features a protective symbol such as an eye. Eyes are thought to ward off the evil eye by staring right back at it.

The idea that you can overcome evil by looking something directly in the eye is a trick from psychology, based on the idea that you can only overcome something if you face it first. For example, addicts must acknowledge they have an addiction problem before they can start to control their addiction.

This idea is also used in various narratives at the Battle scene (climax). An excellent example of that is the movie The Ritual. A man with PTSD after the murder of his friend enters the forest and encounters a terrible monster. He overcomes this monster not by escaping it, tricking it or killing it with a gun but by mustering the courage to put his face right up to the monster’s face. The monster can no longer bother him. The monster is clearly a symbol for some very hard emotions — emotions the main character must learn to live with rather than banish, which would only result in suppression.

One-eyed Creatures

The one-eyed creature is as scary as the three-eyed creature. Humans have evolved from bilateral symmetry, starting with the bony fishes. Therefore, anything without bilateral symmetry is nowhere near related to us.

Unless there’s been a genetic mutation, that is. One-eyed sheep have been overexposed to a chemical known as cyclopamine, clearly named after the Cyclops, an ogre from Greek mythology. He has one eye.

Scholars believe the Cyclops myth may have begun when people saw the skull of a prehistoric dwarf elephant and misidentified its nasal cavity as one large eye socket, leading them to believe monstrous one-eyed humanoids roamed the Earth.

Neatorama

We all go through a forebrain dividing process in utero. But when that process is interrupted, it’s known as cyclopia. When human babies are born with cyclopia, they live only for about a day.

The Pineal Eye

A parietal eye, also known as a third eye or pineal eye, is a part of the epithalamus present in some species of fish, amphibians and reptiles. René Descartes believed the human pineal gland to be the “principal seat of the soul”. Some existing reptiles such as monitor lizards, some iguanas and the tuatara still have a pineal eye. (Only cold-blooded creatures have one.)

Mammalian ancestors likely shifted from “cold” to “warm” blood 246 million years ago. The basic make-up of the eye is similar between cold and warm blooded creatures.

The pineal eye differs from a regular eye. It’s usually covered by a thick and large scale and can differentiate between light and dark only. It basically acts as a calendar. Is it daytime or nighttime? Winter or summer? It also helps reptiles to regular body temperature. Mammals don’t get much use out of it, so we lost it.

“Everything looks different to me when I look at it with you. Have I mentioned that?”
“No,” said Harry. “Perhaps you open a sort of pineal eye and see with that one as well as the other two.”
“What?” said Felix, taken-aback and intrigued. “A what?”
“I think that’s what it’s called,” Harry said doubtfully. “I”m not even sure if it’s a real eye. Tuataras have them. Eye number three on the top of the head, all overgrown with scales.”
“It’s not as silly as it sounds,” Felix said. “If I found I had opened a third eye these days, one that saw more deeply into things than the other two, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. Shall we hold hands or leave that respectable space between us?”

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy

Eyeball As Symbols of Surveillance

I do think that after this season of TV we should put a pin in “bureaucratic pseudo-1950s agencies that oversee EVERYTHING” and come back to it in like 10 years. It’s not a bad trope, just… there’s other tropes.

@BootlegGirl, 7:34 AM · Jul 3, 2021

I wanna say the origin of this aesthetic — predating creepypastas that started riffing on it, like the Holders series and the original SCP entries — was the Sci-Fi Original Movie THE LOST ROOM in 2006, whose creator gave a pretty cool breakdown of why specifically he picked it. … He said that for a Gen X kid like himself, there was this kind of mystical significance to the idea of Dads being At Work The world of “The Office” and “Away on Business” being this realm of the fantastic entirely divorced from their own childhood lives … This separation between the domestic and professional spheres specifically wrought by mid-20th-c American capitalism, Men At Work being a separate species and class from the women and the kids, and from ordinary schlubs doing crappy blue-collar jobs. [The thread continues with examples of this particular aesthetic.]

@arthur_affect 7:45 AM · Jul 3, 2021

It’s a sci-fi renaissance of Kafka

@jmarquiso 7:47 AM · Jul 3, 2021

The symbol of the All Seeing Eye can be seen famously on the American dollar note. This is also known by conspiracy theorists as The Eye of Providence. I can’t be the only one who finds this creepy because the existence of an eyeball on a Government issue ‘document’ has given rise to various creepy theories.

The Eye of Providence has been used throughout history to represent God watching over us. This All Seeing Eye / Eye of Providence has its roots in the Egyptian Eye of Horus. The triangle was added later. Now we have the Christian Trinity — Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

The eye in triangle was adopted as a symbol of the Illuminati and the Freemasons, both secretive organisations. The Illuminati is an organisation within the Catholic Church. According to Freemasonry God is considered Architect of the Universe. Hence the eyeball in a triangle as their symbol, first used as a Masonic symbol in 1797.

When creating characters for children’s books, it’s really easy to get the eyes wrong. The eyes make or break a piece. I’m not sure if the artist behind each picture below intended peak creep, but if so, a gold star.

Foucault’s Panopticon

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who left us with some very interesting ideas. He thought of his ideas as a toolbox, and others were welcome to take tools from it, using them how they wished. Foucault provided us with the concept of the heterotopia and also with the concept of the panopticon. Foucault’s main interest was with systems of power and oppression.

Foucault rejected the notion that power comes from the top and that if we cut the head of the king off we can be free.

There’s a 1968 slogan, about lifting up cobblestones, finding a beach and finding sexual pleasure and being happy. (Something like that.) It may have worked like in the 17th century regime, but not today. Today power comes from the decentralised networks of institutions where professionals have the right to classify individuals through categories. 

In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault critiqued the apparatus of modern society — schools, hospitals and so on — rather than how people traditionally thought of power structures (led by monarchies). This other kind is now widely known as ‘capillary power’.

In describing capillary power, Foucault presented us with the idea of the panopticon. The panopticon was based on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century architectural drawings of a prison.

Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison

Key features of the panopticon:

  1. A central observation tower for the guard
  2. A periphery comprising a circular building with circular cells
  3. Crucially, all of the cells have windows. This isn’t to keep the Hannibal Lecters of this world happy. The windows are not for prisoners’ benefit at all. Instead, light floods the cells so that prisoners can be observed from the tower.

The point is that the inmates observe themselves. They begin to monitor themselves, taking that gaze and imagining we are being watched even when we aren’t. Nobody holds ‘power’. This is how Foucault’s work becomes a critique of Marxism – nobody holds power; we hold it within our very sense of ourselves. (Foucault’s gayness was probably crucial here – later academics have studied this internalised homophobia in much depth.

It’s significant that Michel Foucault lived as a gay man in a dangerously homophobic time. Foucault was a playful, youthful character, but he was also at times very unhappy. He attempted suicide more than once. When faced with the medical establishment, Foucault was told that his illness was because of his homosexuality (not because he was required to live in a homophobic society). So Foucault had personal experience with the medicalisation of something which should never have been medicalised – his sexuality. He gave much thought to how people are surveilled, and even when no one is watching, we still feel watched and judged.

For excellent insight into how homophobia affects mental health, see the work of New Zealand’s Professor Michael Ross, whose research looks into sexual risk behaviour and mental health in gay and bisexual men across cultures and continents. Or perhaps listen to Professor Ross interviewed on Radio New Zealand.

Illustration by Fred Banbery for ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S GHOSTLY GALLERY (1962)
Illustration by Fred Banbery for ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S GHOSTLY GALLERY (1962)
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935) fish bowl
From ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ 1966 Written by Elizabeth Rose Illustrated by Gerald Rose ( b. 1935). The fishbowl is a common symbol of surveillance, as is a glass house.

Black Eyed Kids

Black-eyed kids are paranormal creatures from contemporary American culture. The stories began in the mid 1990s. They’re thought to be normal looking teenagers who wear hoodies. They’ll knock on your door asking for help. The story goes downhill from there. Their entire eyes are black. Some people think these stories come from drug-addicted young people, because of the dilated pupils experienced by drug users.

Proginoskes

Cover illustration for Madeleine L'engle’s A Wind in the Door, 1973, Cover Artist unknown
Cover illustration for Madeleine L’engle’s A Wind in the Door, 1973, Cover Artist unknown

This cherub, whom Meg affectionately refers to as Progo, is an extraterrestrial alien who resembles an apocalyptic angel, having many wings and eyes like the seraphim in the Biblical book, the Revelation of John. His name means ‘foresight’ or ‘foreknowledge’ in Koine Greek, and his character is described as one who names, specifically, he is a namer of the stars. He teaches the protagonists how to use telepathy, and assists them in their quest, eventually sacrificing himself for their salvation, a notably messianic act.

Green-eyed Monsters

The green-eyed monster is a line from Shakespeare’s Othello and no commonly means jealously personified. (Monsterfied?)

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

Shakespeare
Noah and the Rainbow An Ancient Story, illustrated by Helga Aichinger, 1972 eyeline
Noah and the Rainbow An Ancient Story, illustrated by Helga Aichinger, 1972. There are tricks illustrators can use to show where a character is looking and not all of them look light they’ve come straight out of a comic book. This is one fine art example.
"The Green Eyed Monster' illustration by Anton Pieck from 'The Ring Of Seven' (1939)
“The Green Eyed Monster’ illustration by Anton Pieck from ‘The Ring Of Seven’ (1939)
John Schoenherr (1935 - 2010) 1971 book cover illustration for Catseye by Andre Norton
John Schoenherr (1935 – 2010) 1971 book cover illustration for Catseye by Andre Norton
Virgil Finlay's artwork 1950s
Virgil Finlay’s artwork 1950s

RELATED

Opia: The ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.

FURTHER READING

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG