A Glossary of The Underworld

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.

BATS — Since bats like to live in caves, and since being inside a cave feels very much like being underground, no surprise bats are symbolically connected to the Underworld. In the Odyssey, the Fields of Asphodel is described. This is the first region of Hades, where shades of heroes wander despondently among lesser spirits, who twitter around them like bats.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER — Creator Joss Whedon is very familiar with Ancient Greek mythology and makes much use of the tropes and stories in his contemporary work. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a reimagined Achilles in the body of a teenage girl, At one point, Buffy returns from a literal journey to the realm of the dead.

CELLAR — Whereas a basement is the floor of a residence or building entirely or partly located below ground level, a cellar is a room below the ground level used as a storage area. A dry cellar has housing shelves for storing wine, canned food and produce storage. Since storing things feels cosy and safe, appealing to our fantasies of self-sufficiency, the cellar has a much more cosy association than basement.

CELLERAGEThe hollow area beneath a Renaissance stage — known in Renaissance slang as “hell” and entered through a trapdoor called a “hellmouth.” The voice of the ghost comes from this area in Hamlet, which has led to scholarly discussion concerning whether or not the ghost is really Hamlet’s father or a demon in disguise.

CHARON The Hellenes believed a guy called Charon would ferry dead people across The River Styx. He charged a small fee. How is a dead person meant to pay it? This is why loved ones would place a coin in the mouth of their dead relatives. I guess Charon knew to look in dead people’s mouths for it.

CHTHONIC — Deities, spirits, or anything connected or related to the Underworld. Means “of the earth.”

COCYTYS — One of the Five Rivers of the Realm of Hades. Means lamentation. In Inferno, the first cantica of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cocytus is the ninth and lowest circle of The Underworld.

DANTE — Full name: Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet known for using everyday language instead of Latin to create his art. His depictions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven inspired many subsequent Western artists including Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton and Alfred Tennyson. You’ve probably heard of Dante’s Inferno.

Dante and Virgil are obsessed with demons passing through hell, an illustration by Gustave Dore for the 1861 edition of Dante's “Hell” (“Divine Comedy”)
an illustration by Gustave Dore for the 1861 edition of Dante’s “Hell” (“Divine Comedy”)

DI INFERI — The Romans used this phrase to refer to a collective of underworld divinities.

DIVINE COMEDY — Dante’s story about how he goes on a journey that takes him through hell, purgatory and paradise (heaven).

DUNGEON — Aristocracy used to lock prisoners up in their castle dungeons, but these dungeons were never meant (or used) for longterm imprisonment. The prisoners were held there only for a little while, as the more powerful people decided what should be done with them.

ELYSIUM — If Ancient Romans were really good they got sent to Elysium (meaning Islands of the Blessed), along with other “blameless” heroes.

EREBUS — The Ancient Greeks did not like to say the word Hades because they were so scared of him, so they made up many euphemisms. Erebus often referred to Hades himself, but is also a realm of the Underworld (ruled by Hades) which lies beyond the Asphodel Meadows. In Erebus you find two pools. One of the pools was in the River Lethe (one of the Five Rivers of Hades). This is where ordinary dead people would go to erase all memory. There’s also the pool of Mnemosyne (“memory”). This is where the initiates of the Mysteries drank.

FAVA BEANS — Fava beans were the first beans known to Europeans. Among the Greeks and Romans it was associated with funeral rites and the Underworld. Used as offerings. Perhaps in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lecter mentions fava beans (and a nice chianti) to go with his cannibal meats in his underground prison the writer was drawing from ancient symbolism of the underworld. (Here in New Zealand and Australia we call them broad beans.)

FIVE RIVERS — The five rivers of Hades, according to Ancient Greek thought: Acheron (River of Sorrow/Woe), Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Lethe (oblivion) and Styx (hate).

HADES — Ancient Greek god of the underworld, the dead and also riches. Lives in the Underworld. After he was born his father gobbled him up, but thankfully for Hades, he was subsequently regurgitated. Zeus told Hades to find a wife, specifically to abduct one. So Hades ‘obtained’ his wife Persephone by abducting her while she was out picking flowers. He also got really worked up if anyone ever tried to leave his domain, so he’s the Greek mythic equivalent of a coercively controlling, abusive man. When another guy, Pirithous, tried to enter the underworld to abduct Persephone, Hades really had it out for him. Hades seems pretty evil to me, but scholars would like to remind us that Hades is more ‘passive’ than ‘evil’, and mostly doesn’t care about his subjects.

HEAVEN — The place where you go when you die, so long as you’ve been ‘good’. The inverse of Hell.

HELL The world over, human notions of Heaven are above us in the sky; our notions of Hell are below us, underground. This ties in to how we feel symbolically about feet. Feet are ‘dirty’ parts of the body because they touch the ground. Notice how many folkloric creatures from art have weird feet (chicken feet for Baba Yaga, goat feet for Satan and so on). We are suspicious of the ground, whatever lies beneath the ground, and things that touch the ground.

KATABASIS A mythic journey which takes a hero down into the Underworld. When the hero goes down there he typically rescues a soul, so these stories offer a great opportunity for what storytellers might now call Save The Cat. Modern katabasis may not be a literally underground arena, but instead a psychological space.

MYTHOLOGICAL DEATHSCAPES Literal underground arenas are not the only settings which function as mythological deathscapes. Take for example the frozen Wyoming mountains and darkened Mexican foothills of the Sicario trilogy of films.

LETHE Ancient Greeks believed The Lethe flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the Underworld. Those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion.

OCEAN — Symbolically, we should consider ‘the ocean depths’ separately from ‘the top of the sea’. The sea functions more like a desert — it’s dangerous and quite possible to die out there, but the ocean depths are a whole other world, symbolically more like outer space than like anything humans experience on land. The ocean depths are a variant on ‘underground’.

ODYSSEY — The Odyssey is the O.G. masculine mythic journey going back 3000 years. This story started a kind of rule: That in any mythic journey (a.k.a adventure story) a hero’s personal growth must be accompanied by a journey underground. Cf. katabasis. We see main characters venture underground in contemporary Odyssean stories such as Star Wars and The Hobbit. The Odyssey gets quite specific about what hell looks and feels like. For instance, the Fields of Asphodel is the first region of Hades and this is where shades of heroes wander despondently among lesser spirits, who twitter around them like bats.

In The Odyssey, Circe urges Odysseus to consult the seer Tiresias in the Underworld, where many departed souls (including Achilles) appear to him.

PHLEGETHON —  One of the five rivers of the Realm of Hades. Plato describes it as “a stream of fire, which coils round the earth and flows into the depths of Tartarus” (where bad people are sent).

POMEGRANATE — In a Greek myth, after Hades kidnaps Persephone and takes her to his Underworld, Persephone’s mother Demeter misses her and requests her return. Hades is chill with that, apparently, but insists she eats the seed of a pomegranate first. Once you eat the food of the dead you’re bound to return to the realm of the dead. Hades has thusly made sure that he’ll get his kidnapped wife back. Symbolically, for us, pomegranates are symbolically linked to the Underworld. Contemporary stories make use of the trope that once you eat something of another world you become a part of that world. See for example Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

PRECIOUS MINERALS — Since precious minerals come from under the Earth, the Ancient Greeks believed Hades had control of them. And because Hades was so closely associated with death they were afraid to say his name, so he euphemistically became known as “the rich one”.

PSYCHOPOMPS — creatures, spirits, angels, or deities in many religions whose responsibility is to escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife. From a Greek word meaning ‘guide of the souls’.

PURGATORY — Our notions of purgatory have been heavily influenced by Dante.

REALM OF HADES — Hades is the guy who rules the Ancient Greek Underworld, but what is actually like down there? We know he has a palace, a chariot, and likes to sit on couches. He’s got pomegrantes. In the older Greek myths, the realm of Hades is gloomy and misty. (Cf. The Symbolism of Fog.) Once mortals go down there, they can’t come back. (Makes sense, since that’s how death works.) There are five rivers.

STYX — The Hellenes believed dead people got to the Underworld by crossing The River Styx, one of the five rivers of Hades. The River Styx is the river of hate. The dead got ferried across by a guy called Charon. If they didn’t have a coin for him because they were poor or because they didn’t have any loved ones to place one into their mouths, they had to gather on the banks. Charon did not work for charity.

TARTARUS — Ancient Greeks got sent down the road to Tartarus if they were judged by the Three Judges to have been bad/impious. They end up in a deep abyss, used as a dungeon of torment and suffering. Also as the prison for the Titans (the pre-Olympian gods). As you may have guessed, the Ancient Greeks didn’t think much of the Titans. After a ten year war called the Titanomachy, Zeus and his five siblings defeated the Titans. Most were sent to Tartarus as punishment. But those who didn’t take part in the war didn’t have to go down there. Some were punished differently. For example, Atlas’s punishment for helping Cronus was to hold the sky up for eternity.

THREE JUDGES — According to the Ancient Greeks there were three judges of the Underworld: Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus.

TRIVIUM — The crossroads or fork where three roads meet. Once the Ancient Greeks get to Hades, they are judged by the Three Judges. Most of us are neither very good nor very bad, so we’d get sent to the Asphodel Meadows. If you’re really bad you get sent down the road to Tartarus. If you’re really good you get sent to Elysium (meaning Islands of the Blessed), along with other “blameless” heroes.

VIRGIL (OR VERGIL) — an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. “The Aeneid” is an epic journey undertaken by a guy called Aeneus. Since those old masculine mythic journeys require a trip underground, Aeneus goes underground. (Dante and Virgil were both obsessed with demons passing through hell.) This epic poem was highly influential in how the ancient Romans (and beyond) thought about death.

UNDERGROWTH — The forest equivalent of the ‘underground’ without actually being underground. In narrative, at least, this is a natural landscape where you may find humans doing things they don’t think they should be doing. The forest undergrowth is a heterotopia, where the rules of society are different. (The forest undergrowth is a heterotopia within a heterotopia, because the forest itself is heterotopic.)

Joan González Couple in the Undergrowth c.1900
Joan González Couple in the Undergrowth c.1900

UPPER WORLD — If we’re going to talk about the ‘underworld’ we need a word to describe the regular place where people live. The Romans called this place the upper world.

The Beast In The Pit by Alasdair Gray, 1952. Glasgow
The Beast In The Pit by Alasdair Gray, 1952. Glasgow

Fear of Engulfment in Storytelling

There’s a very good reason why girls should be told the truth about baby-making as soon as they ask: If she’s old enough to be asking, she’s old enough to be worrying. Unless they’re told exactly how pregnancy happens, young girls often worry that it may happen to them at any time, without warning. The prospect is terrifying.

For people without a womb, it’s perhaps difficult to imagine the terror of becoming impregnated against one’s will, to have a human growing inside, to endure excruciating labour. For those exact reasons, existing reproductive rights must not be lost. Full reproductive rights must be afforded to all.

For most of human history, the womb-bearers had little to no choice about becoming the receptacles of new life, often at the expense of their own life. The act of giving birth was historically far more dangerous than it is now, at least for many, in many countries around the world. Before giving birth myself, I used to marvel at the nonchalant looks on pregnant women’s faces. How did they look so serene? Why weren’t they terrified? Turns out they probably were, among many other emotions. The terrifying aspect of pregnancy and labour remains largely hidden to those not currently experiencing it. I believe many mothers also forget that terror once it’s safely over (otherwise no one would go back for subsequent rounds).

But the specific terror of pregnancy and childbirth is right there in our collective consciousness, and we only need look at the history of storytelling. We can trace this specifically feminine fear across our mythologies, folk tales and fairytales, right back to antiquity. Women have always been afraid of pregnancy and childbirth. Women have also been afraid of subjugation to men they’re married of too, often without their full (or partial) consent.

by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987)
Continue reading “Fear of Engulfment in Storytelling”

Rich As Stink by Alice Munro

John Collier - Fire

Gaslighting, parentification, spousification, self-objectification, coercive control… People living in 1974 did not have ready access to the language of psychology and found it difficult to describe emotionally abusive relationships, let alone talk about the shame. Likewise, there wasn’t the language to describe that disorienting transition from girlhood to womanhood.

Continue reading “Rich As Stink by Alice Munro”

Cannibalism in Storytelling

If you wanted to create a scary monster, the scariest ever, how would you go about it? Make it big (like an ogre). Make it invisible, so you never know when it’s there. Make it sometimes nasty, sometimes nice, like a white witch, seductive and charming, all the while scheming.

Make it unexpectedly violent. Therefore make it a woman. Worse, make it a mother. Make it a failed mother. Make it a vengeful failed mother who cooks and eats children. Make it a vengeful failed mother who eats her own children. RAW.

That, folks, is peak monster.

Actually, maybe we can go one step further and make it even worse. Make the cannibal a CHILD. Don’t blame me for that mental imagery. I didn’t invent it.

At least, that’s what I thought, until I listened to the Scale of Evil episode of Unpopular Culture podcast. At around the 20 minute mark they talk about actual instances of cannibalistic criminals in our time, and it turns out my mind hadn’t gone there. If you are hellbent on finding out what’s even worse than what I just described above, I offer only a link.

Continue reading “Cannibalism in Storytelling”

Chimneys In Art And Storytelling

Fred Cecil Jones (British,1891-1956) - Chimney stacks and winding ways, 1936

Chimneys are inherently scary. A few years ago I turned up at our local country bookclub and assumed the host had been slow cooking meat for dinner. Others entered one by one and assumed the same. The grim truth was revealed; a possum had fallen down the chimney. I won’t go into further details because they are gruesome and tortuous. But I’ve heard the story more than once. Owning a chimney, at least in Australia and New Zealand, puts wildlife at risk.

Certain wildlife is attracted to chimneys, sometimes because they’re trying to find a hidey-hole to escape a predator, and sometimes, I wonder, if they are attracted to the heat in wintertime.

The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967
The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917-2000) published in 1967
Continue reading “Chimneys In Art And Storytelling”

Zoo by Anthony Browne (1992)

Zoo is a postmodern picture book written and illustrated by Anthony Browne, first published in 1992. Browne’s story is not a pleasant or easy read, but it does the job it’s meant to. This is a critique of zoos as a fun day out (for children and animals alike), and subverts a long tradition in children’s literature as zoos as an arena for carnivalesque fun.

20th century children’s books set in zoos are not hard to find. Zoos also appear frequently in art aimed at an adult audience:

from Punch, 1867
from Punch, 1867 by Du Maurier
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) Gouache illustration for The New Yorker cover May 26 1945 zoo
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover fair zoo noah's ark
by Tibor Gergery (1900-1978), 1944 New Yorker Cover
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion
Norman Rockwell Zoo Keeper lion

SETTING OF

  1. PERIOD — This picture book was published in 1992, a period in which traditional 20th century zoos were starting to reconsider their raison d’être. I’m of the generation who saw that change happen in real time. My early childhood experiences include visits to absolutely horrible zoos, which hadn’t quite gone by the time I was in my late teenage years. The most confronting zoo I visited was the Tokyo Zoo, in 1995 — a concrete establishment bereft of people. I went there with my fellow exchange student peers on a Sunday afternoon exploring central Tokyo and we left in a very dispirited mood. In my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, I remember seeing a gorilla locked inside a cage about the size of a bedroom. He had nothing to do in there except masturbate, which he did frequently, looking visitors right in the eye. I feel he knew exactly how confronting this was. And I can’t quite fathom how adults felt it was okay to exhibit that gorilla as a spectacle in the very same environment in which talk of masturbation, let alone the spectacle of it, was utterly taboo.
Kabakun is a classic Japanese picture book published in 1962. Told by a boy who visits the zoo for fun, this is about a day in the life of two hippopotamuses. The illustrations make the hippos seem enormous on the page, so this picture book makes an excellent case study in how to achieve that effect. It is not, however, a critique of zoos.
  1. DURATION — Anthony Browne’s Zoo takes place over part of a day. A day trip.
  2. LOCATION — This fictional zoo is positioned in the middle of a busy city. Browne is clear about that — the family gets stuck in a traffic jam in order to get to this artificial wilderness.
  3. ARENA —But even once inside the zoo, Browne’s backdrops offer us glimpses of the surrounding arena, which is completely devoid of greenery. Instead we see the least beautiful parts of humanity.
  4. MANMADE SPACES — I’m talking about the power pylons and the tall buildings, shown to us only in silhouette, making them seem even more ominous.
  5. NATURAL SETTINGS — The story has no natural setting at all, which is entirely the point. Although Browne’s critique of the zoo experience as Not Fun was new to picture books in 1992, there is a lengthy history of children’s storytellers subtley and not so subtley conveying the message that the country is wholesome and the city is dangerous for children, and that cities stifle childhood itself.
  6. WEATHER — If Browne wanted to create a genuine utopia he’d have created a blue sky with plenty of greenery, but in Zoo he does the opposite. The sky is as grey as they concrete zoo inside the concrete jungle of humanity.
  7. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The zoo itself
  8. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? Politically, animal rights activists were starting to gain traction and the a greater proportion of the general public was starting to think a bit more critically about how we treat animals, especially wild animals, especially endangered species. I’m confident that zoos (and circuses) will one day be no longer a thing that exist. Most zoos in the year 2020 are doing a better job of creating the illusion of nature, and some perhaps genuinely provide a decent life for some of their animals. But there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes that would shock visitors. For instance, the giraffe at our local zoo is a main exhibit, and if you turn up for the talk you’ll hear all about what he eats, how he spends his days, and he’ll come close enough for you to admire his beautiful long lashes. Left out of the child-friendly talk: how a new giraffe was murdered one night in a territory fight, because giraffes are a violent, territorial species, and one zoo ain’t big enough for two males.
  9. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Here we are talking about the difference between what is real in the veridical world of the story and how a character perceives it — never exactly as it is, but rather influenced by their own preconceptions, biases, desires and personal histories. The characters in this particular story exist on a continuum between laughingly blasé (the father) and quiet, sober and concerned (the mother). The boy who narrates is noticing his parents’ reactions and, at the reflective time of retelling, seems to be making up his own about zoos. At this point he simply knows zoos are not fun. The details he tells us are centred on him, his own family and his own family’s experience of the zoo, not on the experience of the animals. The reader, however, with careful reading of the images, will see the exact ways in which this zoo is not fun: For the empathetic person, a zoo can’t be fun for humans if it’s not fun for animals.

STORY STRUCTURE OF ZOO

PARATEXT

Zoo Anthony Browne cover
Zoo Anthony Browne cover

Unusually for Goodreads, the publishers have said nothing about this book other than:

Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal.

The most upvoted consumer reviewers fall on a narrow spectrum between ‘I did not like this book’ and ‘I did not like this book but it’s important’.

SHORTCOMING

Zoo by Anthony Browne is an especially good case study in meaningful framing. Illustrators make various use of frames — doorways, windows and arches make for naturalistic architectural divisions of a scene. Frames can be created in other ways, too, for example in the opening image below. This looks like a simple page of portraits but on a re-read you’ll notice that those boxes separate each family member from each other, and the white space between them is the psychological distance between them. This is the story of a family separated from each other by metaphorical bars and white space.

zoo characters introduction
There is a lot of ironic distance between words and pictures in this book. The words say the boys are excited; the facial expressions tell a different story.

Stripes are another symbolic feature of the illustrations, most obviously in the stripy shirt worn by the father, the character most responsible for splitting the family apart.

dad horn clouds
The symbolic stripes (meaning bars on a cage) may need to be pointed out to the youngest readers, but those clouds forming devil horns are not at all subtle, and should alert the most naive of readers to the idea that these pictures contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Seeing these obvious horns, the young reader is encouraged to find more clues in the pictures, in a Where’s Wally kind of way.

The mother doesn’t seem to have any power in this family. She does have a voice, though her observations don’t have any impact on her husband. This is an example of the well-established female maturity principle at work, in which female characters are the people in a story with extra insight, well-developed empathy. It is rare to find a gender inversion of this parental dynamic.

The boys might as well be zoo animals themselves because they are stuck in this family, forced to do whatever the adults require of them. At times they break out and rough and tumble with each other, much like monkeys.

DESIRE

The action is driven by the father, who is the only one in this family who thinks a trip to the zoo would be fun. We are shown this in the car, when the father is the only one to laugh at his own joke. Browne, in turn, makes this into a joke for the reader by saying ‘everyone laughed except’ (everyone else in the car). This solipsistic father has no empathy for the desires of the rest of his family.

However, Browne knows that children in children’s stories need their own desires in order for a story to work, so the boys do have wishes of their own: They want to see the monkeys and apes, not all the other ‘boring’ animals. When they do see the large ape, this will comprise the climax. (Subverted.)

OPPONENT

The parents have their own idea about how the day should pan out. It should be fun, dammit. Even though the boys are hungry, they are not allowed to eat until designated lunchtime. In this respect, the boys are like the animals, who must wait for their feeding time rather than hunting and eating according to their own rhythms.

Browne’s illustrations of the father emphasise his bulk, with worm’s eye views (rather, child-eye views) and in one disturbing picture he has his mouth wide open, similar to depictions of cannibalistic ogres.

The boys are depicted as monkeys. The father makes a joke about their monkey hats, and Browne has emphasised the boys’ faces to better resemble monkeys’ faces. In comparison to the gorilla, these small monkeys are helpless.

PLAN

The adults’ plan: To get value for money by visiting all of the animals. Browne shows us that the father doesn’t want to pay the entry fee because he lies about the son’s age to get a cheaper price. He also doesn’t pay for a map. (I deduce that’s why they don’t have one.) The family is therefore lost within the zoo, which is not at all like a wilderness but functions more like a labyrinth, in which the family are on this path and must walk around and around until allowing themselves a psychological out. No one has forced them into this labyrinth, but as in any mythological labyrinth, there will be a Minotaur at the centre, when the main character reaches the darkest depths of his soul.

THE BIG STRUGGLE/CLIMAX

So who is the Minotaur of this zoo-labyrinth? Is it the father? I believe it’s the father AND the gorilla, who is an absolutely pitiful creature. We don’t even see the gorilla’s face, just the hunched over, completely withdrawn, pathetic figure of a magnificent wild creature with beautiful reddish fur.

Anthony Browne uses the same illustrative trick in his retelling of Hansel and Gretel, in which the stepmother EQUALS the witch. Using illustrations, Browne melds a familiar (family) characater into the supernatural, mythical character, showing the reader that mythological creatures aren’t real, sure, but are even scarier than we thought; they walk among us. They live in our homes.

ANAGNORISIS

The boy narrator does not experience an “Oh my, zoos are horrible! I’m never visiting a zoo again!’ kind of epiphany. It would be unbelievable, and unlike a children’s story, if he did. Joycean epiphanies happen rarely in real life, and postmodern stories reflect that. This child’s naivety is established in the opening, when he uses ‘incorrect’ grammar ‘Me and my brother were really excited’. The introduction itself is naive, written in a ‘what I did on my holiday’ kind of way, as if required by his schoolteacher. One does not become all-seeing and wise over the course of a single outing.

Instead, the boy realises that zoos are not fun, which is just the first step towards full awareness of humans’ relationship to animals, and how far humans have become removed from our natural environments, of small communities, of ready access to nature, and everything that goes with that.

In a story like this this, the reader is supposed to have more of a revelation than the naive narrator. When developmentally reader to do so, the reader picks up the double meaning of the mother’s final observation:

“I don’t think the zoo really is for animals… I think it’s for people.”

First meaning: Zoos are no good for animals. They are good only for people.
Second meaning: Zoos are a type of cage for people, as well as for animals.

The illustration on the recto side of the spread encourages the second reading because now we see a close up of a gorilla not through bars, but through the archetypal storybook window frame, divided into four segments. This family is about to go home, and they talk about eating dinner, and what they will have. In a Magic Eye book kind of way, we can imagine seeing the family through that same frame, eating their burger and chips and beans — foods chosen by Browne specifically for being highly processed, removed from ‘nature’, not through the bars of a zoo, but through the equally restrictive ‘bars’ of a suburban window frame.

NEW SITUATION

That night I had a very strange dream.

Do you think animals have dreams?

The final sentence shows the reader that the boy narrator has finally started to think about the ‘humanity’ of the animals. He’s just starting to look outside the concerns of his own family.

The full-page recto imagery is a wide angle shot of a zoo in silhouette, but most of the page is sky and includes the moon. This functions as an outro shot seen frequently in film — big skies and oceans are commonly used to show the main character has achieved a wider view of the story situation. (Sometimes the storyteller elevates the main character by putting them on a hill or a roof.)

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

This boy could go either way. He could side with his wholly unempathetic same-gender parent and become a big, strong man who laughs and cracks dad jokes and impresses his own thoughts and desires upon everyone around him, using his bulk like a wild male gorilla. Or he could forge a more modern path, using his mother as cue. The final sentence has suggested he’ll take the second path, but sometimes characters in stories have a temporary (“phantasmagoric”) epiphany then go right back to how they were before. (The Literary Impressionists were a fan of this kind of ending.)

RESONANCE

In the 19th century, families used to visit asylums for the insane as family outings. We now call this Asylum Tourism.

Modern families would shudder at asylum tourism, which is why I think future families will, in time, shudder at zoos (and circuses), if not already.

Castles In Art and Storytelling

Maxfield Parrish - Dream Castle in the Sky

The castle is a feature of Gothic storytelling, and commonly makes appearances in ghost stories of all kinds. Dragons and castles also go together.

As kids my friends and I played King of the Castle. There’s not much to it. We used a pile of dirt, left by some builders. One person climbs to the top and says, “I’m the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal.” That’s about all that happens. The pleasure derives from pretending you’re the boss of your friends.

I wonder if kids still do this? The children in the painting below are using the elevated platform of a cart to play the same game.

Myles Birket Foster - Who's to be King of the Castle
Myles Birket Foster – Who’s to be King of the Castle
Continue reading “Castles In Art and Storytelling”

Tunnel and Cave Symbolism

William Shayer Senior - Scene Near Zeldkirch in the Tyrol

In symbolism, there is often a manmade and naturally occurring equivalent. The tunnel is the manmade version of a cave, the sewer a sea (littoral) cave.

Gustaf Tenggren cave, with influence of John Bauer, 1925
Illustration by Gustaf Tenggren, painted with the influence of John Bauer, 1925.
Theodor Severin Kittelsen (1857 – 1914) 1904 Dragon illustration for The Knucker And Other Stories
Theodor Severin Kittelsen (1857 – 1914) 1904 Dragon illustration for The Knucker And Other Stories

Other examples:

  • The pool is the manmade equivalent of a pond. This symbolism is utilised by Helen Simpson in her short story “Up At A Villa“.
  • The atrium is the manmade equivalent of Heaven / sky.
  • The cathedral is a manmade attempt at a forest. (So is a barn, e.g. in Charlotte’s Web.)
  • The cauldron is the manmade, utilitarian equivalent of a woman’s womb.
  • This is a bit different again, since both rugs and gardens are manmade, but the Persian rug symbolises a garden. (Check our my post on heterotopias.)

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Cave Symbolism

Basically, caves and tunnels recreate darkness and night-time, so naturally inherit much of the symbolism of black, darkness and night. Other associations:

  • secret, hidden space
  • the universe
  • security
  • impregnability
  • the human mind, especially the unconscious and subconscious
  • the womb of Mother Earth (the vagina would then be the entrance)
  • mothers in general, fertility
  • hell
  • resurrection and rebirth (the Easter Bible story)
  • place of initiation
  • place of earthly energy
  • burial
  • the primitive part of the self, or where Self meets Ego
  • the heart and centre (especially in Hindu tradition, where Atma is seated)
  • a liminal space where the divine meets the human
  • a place of refuge (especially robbers)
  • primitive shelter
  • where gnomes and monsters live
  • where failed mothers hide in shame (e.g. Lamia, wicked cannibalistic fairy-ancestor of Greek myth)

In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where people literally believe their villages and families comprise multitudes of witches, even babies aren’t safe. This is apparently because witch mothers take their babies to the cave at Owia Stone:

[Witch mothers] go to the stone, and file their teeth and when they see that they are sharp, then they know that the child is ready. They can eat people now … kill people … destroy people. From the time they are babies they are prepared …. Now many of the little children — they are witches. But you can’t tell ….

Bad things happen in caves! Equally, though, to enter a cave can symbolise entering the womb, or somehow returning to one’s beginnings. Safety, not danger.

Passing through a cave can symbolise overcoming some kind of dangerous obstacle, leading to rebirth and anagnorisis.

In Native American tradition, a series of caves one above the over symbolises the different worlds.

In Celtic tradition the cave is the portal to another world. In the music video below, the tunnel is also used as a portal to a person’s emotional landscape.

In China the cave is the feminine, the yin, and the gate to the Underworld.

According to Jewish thought, Obadiah is supposed to have received the gift of prophecy for having hidden the “hundred prophets” from the persecution of Jezebel. He hid the prophets in two caves, so that if those in one cave should be discovered those in the other might yet escape.

The Allegory of the Cave is a Platonic story in which Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Also known as Plato’s Cave.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates, Plato, and several of their fellows debate the nature of ideal government. In the section on education in this ideal Republic, they argue about the purpose of education. As part of Socrates’ argument, the discussion veers into an allegory in which human existence is being trapped in a cave of ignorance, chained in place and unable to view anything except shadows cast on the wall. Some of those shadows are vague outlines of actual unseen truths beyond the perception of the senses; others are false images deliberately designed to mislead the cave-dwellers, keeping them content and unquestioning. The purpose of education becomes freeing the imprisoned human and forcing him to leave the cave, to look at the actual objects that make the shadows. Cf. Platonic Forms.

While reading Plato’s cave as an allegory of education is a common interpretation, some philosophers (especially medieval readers) often took a more mystical approach to the Greek text, interpreting the cave as the material or physical world, while the shadows were mere outline of a greater spiritual truths–hidden and eternal beyond the physical world. C. S. Lewis coopts this idea in The Last Battle, in which the characters discover after death that Narnia has merely been a crude approximation of heaven, and the further they travel in the “onion ring,” the larger and more beautiful and more true the inner rings become.

Literary Terms and Definitions

The cave has unambiguous sexual connotations, associated with an historically taboo part of cis women’s bodies. (Sea caves even more so.)

“You know how you feel when someone whispers to you that so-and-so is ill and you say, ‘Too bad,’ and ask what the matter is and they whisper ‘Women’s troubles’? You never pursue it. You have this vague sense of oozings and drippings, blood that insists on pouring out of assorted holes, organs that drip down with all the other goo and try to depart, breasts that get saggy or lumpy and sometimes have to be cut off. Above all there is the sense of a rank cave that never gets fresh air, dark and smelly, its floor a foot thick with sticky disgusting mulch. Yes.”

Marilyn FrenchThe Women’s Room

The sirens in the painting below are presented to us as sexual objects. Here’s the thing about femme mythical creatures: They spend part of their history as formidable, then eventually are ‘tamed’ and rendered useful by artists and storytellers who sap their powers by presenting them as consumables.

That said, I don’t think the dangerous side of sirens has been forgotten entirely. It lurks within our collective psyche. These sirens may be presented as helpless, highly sexualised objects, but there’s something dangerous and troubling happening in the background. Where there are sirens there is trouble. Using sexuality, they are supposed to lure sailors to their deaths.

Edward John Poynter - Cave of the Storm Nymphs
Edward John Poynter – Cave of the Storm Nymphs

The painting below shows the Greek god Vulcan hiding in a cave. Vulcan was the only ugly god, which was a real problem because even his mother couldn’t love him. Juno kicked him off Mount Olympus. (In her defence, he did have a bright red face and cried constantly.) He fell for an entire day and night and eventually landed in water. This broke Vulcan’s legs. Fortunately for him, sea nymphs found him. They raised him. According to the painting below, he might’ve lived in a sea cave. When he grew up, Vulcan tricked his mum into sitting in a jewelled chair. This chair wouldn’t let her go, and Juno was mad as hell. Jupiter persuaded Vulcan to let her go. If he let his mum get out of the damn chair, he’d get beautiful Venus as a gift. So here’s Venus, visiting Vulcan in his cave. They didn’t live happily ever after in this cave, by the way. Vulcan returned to Mount Olympus. He had a beautiful wife now, so she compensated for his ugliness.

Sigismund Christian Hubert Goetze - Venus Visits Vulcan 1909
Sigismund Christian Hubert Goetze – Venus Visits Vulcan 1909
Omar Rayyan - Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale cave
Omar Rayyan – Rimonah of the Flashing Sword A North African Tale cave

Australian Aboriginal culture also features a fearsome woman in a cave. She is similar to the Greek Lamia but has sharp teeth and cannibalises her lovers (in common with some spiders). She is a figure from a series of Aboriginal cautionary tales. These tales were designed to prevent young men from too much sexual adventure. (Others were the Mungga-Mungaa and the Abuba.)

Tunnel Symbolism

Adolph K. Kronengold
Adolph K. Kronengold

Tunnels inherit much of the symbolism attributed to caves but, on top of that, tunnels signify focus. Sometimes the dominant culture feels someone has too much focus. We call that tunnel vision. In that case the word ‘monotropism‘ is often applied to people with autistic phenotypes.

A monotropic mind is one that focuses its attention on a small number of interests at any time, tending to miss things outside of this attention tunnel.

Wikipedia

Tunnels, more than caves, are also thought to lead somewhere. tl;dr: Nowhere good. In stories they are often a kind of portal.

Hayao Miyazaki features many caves in his anime. I’ve written about tunnels in Totoro and Ponyo. Tunnels feature large in Japanese superstition. Until quite recently women were not meant to enter tunnels. Naturally, this restricted women to their local areas, since Japan is a mountainous country. The superstition is based on the misogynist notion that women are jealous by nature:

According to the superstition, the god of a mountain is a jealous woman who will cause accidents if a woman enters the construction site of a tunnel.

Bucking superstition, Japanese woman tunnels way to top of civil-engineering world, The Japan Times

Canadian author Alice Munro makes use of tunnel as a kind of portal in her short story “Powers“. This is an excellent example of speculative fiction with grounding in the real world. (The supernatural powers are probably no such thing… but could be.) The tunnel is therefore a good choice of fantasy portal because tunnels exist in real life and a tunnel could be just a tunnel.

Sea caves are especially scary because the tide sends water rushing in. You don’t want to hang around for too long inside a sea cave. If you get disorientated due to utter darkness you might end up drowned. This puts a natural ticking clock storytelling device on narratives featuring caves by the sea.

Past and Present, No. 3 1858 Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863
Past and Present, No. 3 1858 Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863

Sewer as City Sea Cave

In the realm of the city, the sewer is the manmade symbolic equivalent of the sea cave.

The snail under the leaf setting is an appealing horror setting, epitomised by comfortable suburbs. The definition of an snail under the leaf setting is ‘something rotten lurks beneath the surface’. Sewers epitomise that feeling of dread. Rats are the animal most closely associated with sewers. (Though turtles may have stepped into that mental picture for kids of the 80s and 90s.)

Pennywise looks out of the sewer in a movie adaptation of Stephen King’s IT.
The story requires our main characters to venture into the cave. We silently beg them not to, all the while wanting them to discover what’s down there: the definition of horripilation.
'Dramatic rescue of two Italian workers trapped in a flooded tunnel'   'La Domenica del Corriere' Cover by Achille Beltrame, 21.1.1906
‘Dramatic rescue of two Italian workers trapped in a flooded tunnel’ (‘La Domenica del Corriere’). Cover by Achille Beltrame, 1906.
Strange Adventures In The Rise and Fall of Humpty Dumpty
Strange Adventures In The Rise and Fall of Humpty Dumpty

Header painting: William Shayer Senior – Scene Near Zeldkirch in the Tyrol

Symbolism of Containers

Kitchen Utensils c.1914-8 Leslie Hunter 1877-1931

Vessels or containers are as important for the space they contain as well as for any material they hold. Containers tend to be associated with women. As motifs running throughout a story they can also symbolise physical or emotional containment, either self-driven or imposed upon a character from outside.

The Promise and Intrigue of Containers

Treasure, 1925 (Norman Lindsay, 1879-1969) mermaid treasure
Treasure, 1925 (Norman Lindsay, 1879-1969)
Thomas Edwin Mostyn - The Jeweled Box 1900
Thomas Edwin Mostyn – The Jeweled Box 1900

The box containing treasure was once used to market cereal. This imagery wouldn’t be utilised by marketers today, and I deduce that the box of treasure was a stronger symbol for early 20th century audiences than it is for us.

Guarding The Treasure Box Kellogg’s Toasted Cornflakes

How to create optimal mystery? Promise something but don’t show it. This is why we wrap presents. It’s why artists show characters looking at something mysterious out of the frame. It’s why writers drip feed something gradually, slowly bringing a mysterious person or item into view, building up to the big reveal.

Containers are the symbolic embodiment of all that. An enclosed container holds something but we don’t know what. Not until we open it.

PANDORA’S BOX, OR JAR, AND ALSO EVE

Across the history of storytelling, many narratives exist to teach less powerful people (including women) that if you find something locked away in a chest, you should just leave it there. The story of Adam and Eve is the stand-out example of this story, but we also have Pandora’s box.

Pandora's Box Arthur Rackham
Pandora’s Box by Arthur Rackham. The naked adolescent or young teenage girl feels jarringly sexualised and predatory by today’s standards.

Many male painters since have painted Pandora naked (forgetting about the silvery robe Hesiod gave her in the eighth century BCE (while at the same time seeing to become aroused by his own creation):

  • Jean Cousin
  • Jules Lefebvre
  • Paul Cesaire Gariot
  • William Etty
  • John William Waterhouse
  • et al

The story of Pandora is a permutation of the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. In art, the two women are sometimes conflated. For instance, Jean Cousin’s Eva Prima Pandora (c. 1550), Henry Howard’s The Opening of Pandora’s Vase (1834), Rossetti’s portrait of Pandora (1871). Rossetti’s remains the most famous of these.

The Opening of Pandora’s Vase by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In both the Eve and Pandora stories, a woman gets the blame for unleashing evils into the world. This has always struck me as vastly unfair.

Let’s talk about Eve for a moment, and why it was never her fault.

  1. God created the tree
  2. God put the tree right where the humans he created could take it, with the apple in easy picking-reach
  3. God made the fruit look delicious, with an eye-catching colour
  4. God created the persuasive talking snake
  5. God only warned Adam not to eat the apple. No one actually told Eve not to touch it, though some may assume Adam passed on the message, since the word of God in many churches passes from God to male church leader to husbands and only afterwards to wives.

Meanwhile, Adam had heard the prohibition directly from God and shared the apple with Eve. If anyone’s more culpable in this narrative, surely it’s Adam.

If you agree that Eve was unfairly blamed, just wait until you hear about Pandora.

  1. In early versions of this story, there was no box and Pandora did not open it. The box first appeared in the story in Works and Days by Hesiod (Greek), later translated into Latin by Erasmus, more than 2000 years later. Erasmus had trouble translating ‘pathos’, which referred in Greek to a big ceramic storage jar about a metre high and not very stable. It’s possible Erasmus was confusing Pandora with Psyche (who does carry a box). In any case, jar became box.
  2. Those big storage jars were about a metre tall, narrow at the base, and not exactly stable. They did not have screw top lids. They were easy to knock over. Without a tight lid, it’s not as if anyone could keep evils inside a big ceramic jar let alone be responsible for letting them out.
  3. Artists have since depicted Pandora opening a box, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of malice. In either case, the evils of the world become Pandora’s fault. 

Bluebeard fairytales (and all their descendents) have the same message: If you know something is locked away LEAVE IT LOCKED AWAY. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see why these cautionary tales existed: To leave power in the hands of those who already had it.

CHARLES FOLKARD (1878 – 1963) The Chest Had Been Washed Up on the Shores of Ephesus, The Children’s Shakespeare book art (1911)

18th century children’s story Rosamund and the Purple Jar is anti-climactic precisely because the vessel holds something pretty, then disturbing, and ultimately contains nothing Rosamund wants. Her hopes are dashed. Victorian children were supposed to learn from this didactic story not to place too much hope on the unseen and the unknown. More generally, pretty appearances can disappoint by their lack of true substance.

In her short story “Prelude“, Katherine Mansfield makes use of containers as a motif throughout, liking young Kezia to her grandmother via a shared proximal placement of small containers.

For another short story with a box as significant motif see “U.F.O. In Kushiro” by Haruki Murakami.

The Third Casket

A ‘third casket’ is similar in concept to Pandora’s box, and is found in many fairytales. The first and second caskets contain riches but the third unleashes bad stuf like storms, death, general devastation.

These days, in many cultures, we divide the year into four distinct parts (by season). Stories about three caskets indicate a different division — a division into thirds. Two good seasons, one bad.

Arks

If you think of ‘ark’, you’re probably thinking of Noah’s Ark, or possibly the Ark of the Covenant. An ark is a big container that holds very valuable objects. In this way, an ark symbolises a treasure chest. It might be massive (as in Noah’s) or it might be small (as in the ‘ark’ that Moses was found in, floating in the reeds). The commonality is that an ark’s contents are precious.

The bottle is one of the symbols of salvation, probably because of the analogy (of function rather than of shape) with the ark and the boat.

A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Cirlot

Witch Bottles

In the 17th century, people started burying bottles around their yards to ward off evil. Inside the bottles: hair/pins/urine/chicken feathers/bits of plants and various bits and bobs. These were known as witch bottles. They are to break the power of a witch over their victim.

Science in this period was pretty different from ‘science’ as we know it today. These witch bottles were basically in accordance with scientific thought of the era.

Witch bottles were also thrown into lakes, the sea and other places thought to be affected by witches. Everyone used them differently, according to private symbolic ideas. But we can access these ideas using folkloric research and sort of make sense of how people thought they worked. A witch bottle contained some sort of ‘spirit essence’ which had been coerced into that bottle. Location is vitally important in determining the function of that bottle.

Some bottles were thought to have been laid down by witches themselves. These bottles were not apotropaic, but were designed to cast a curse upon somebody.

If you came across a bottle, it may have been put there by a witch. So there was a proper way to dispose of it, rather like a bomb disposal unit. One does not simply break a witch bottle. In line with the message of the Pandora’s Box category of tales, it was thought that if you break a witch bottle horrible things would happen — vegetation would die and so on. NEVER EVER THROW IT INTO A CESSPOOL OR RUBBISH PIT. Break it over a fresh south flowing river or stream, where the pernicious fluid can mingle with pure currents and be imperceptibly but irrecovably wasted.

Some bottles are thought to have an anthropomorphic element to them, containing its own heart (animus).

Perhaps some bottles, for example the one containing the chicken feather, may have been thought to take pestilence away. (Maybe their chicken flock had been infected/infested and they didn’t know what else to do.)

(Listen to a podcast about witch bottles here, from Dr Peter Hewitt.)

Container as Private, Secret Space

In the 17th and 18th centuries, domestic corridors and closets, multiplying bedrooms and staircases, secluded chambers and servant’s bells manifested new architectures of secrecy, as well as new relations between masters and house staff. These new spatial orders might have afforded greater privacy (or secrecy?) to the elite, yet “the average London servant,” Amanda Vickery reminds us, “had no settled space to call their own.”  Instead, many carried a portable lock box. While householders tended to maintain an assemblage of distributed hiding places around the house, assistants and lodgers often stored their secret (or private?) matters in locked trunks, chests, and closets (Meanwhile, in the U.S., some enslaved people buried valuable property under their floorboards, and embedded secret messages and escape routes in hand-crafted quilts).

Encrypted Repositories, Shannon Mattern

The Bag of Holding

The name of this trope comes from Dungeons and Dragons:

The Bag of Holding is a specific portable item which is Bigger on the Inside than it is on the outside. Much bigger. It may not look it, but that’s because it contains Hammer Space. Because the holding capacity of the bag comes from internal Hammer Space, a thoroughly-packed Bag of Holding will weigh no more than a full normal bag. Odds are, it will weigh no more than an empty normal bag.

Because of the sheer amount of goods you can store in one, trying to find something specific usually results in a Rummage Fail. Except, of course, in videogames where time itself will stop to let you go through your inventory in peace.

TV Tropes

The Cabinet of Curiosities

Domenico Remps (1620-1699), Cabinet of Curiosities, 17th century, painting, Italy, Florence, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure

The word ‘cabinet’ originally described a room rather than a cabinet (and is still used to mean ‘room’ when we’re talking about Parliament buildings). Originally, a cabinet of curiosities was a big room in a rich person’s house containing all kinds of treasures — sort of like a private museum. The first cabinets of curiosities appeared in the 16th century. In fact, these rooms were precursors to museums. People who travelled were in the best position to set them up, e.g. merchants.

When cabinets became collections held in pieces of furniture (today’s usual meaning of ‘cabinet’), they were designed to be as interesting to look at as possible. They were highly ornamental, decorative and housed many disparate things. The idea was to represent the entire world in miniature. Interest came from the juxtaposition of many different objects.

Cabinets of curiosities were also show-off items, showing how rich you were, how cultured, how well-travelled.

Over the centuries, artifacts from these collections have proven invaluable to historians, naturalists and archeologists.

Charles Edward Wilson - The Miniature 1912
Charles Edward Wilson – The Miniature 1912

Cauldrons

Jean-Leon Huens (Belgian) cover illustration for The Black Cauldron from the series The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
Jean-Leon Huens (Belgian) cover illustration for The Black Cauldron from the series The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett
Mists and Magic chosen and edited by Dorothy Edwards illustrated by Jill Bennett

In fiction, cauldrons have a special association with magic. Some such cauldrons are inherently magical, having some special power or another (an obvious one being the power to produce an endless supply of something you’d make in a more normal pot). Others are just used for magic (especially when Alchemy Is Magic), but apart from that, are just ordinary pots. They’re often black, and the contents are often inexplicably green, but both those things are optional.

TV Tropes

Sometimes the cauldron is called a kettle. Cauldrons and kettles come in various shapes and sizes. Cauldrons can be terrible or wonderful, oftentimes both.

Illustration by Norman Mills Price (1877-1951) witch circle
Illustration by Norman Mills Price (1877-1951). I guess cauldrons weren’t as big as I was expecting.

According to witch mythology, an iron cauldron or kettle was used to prepare Sabbat feasts, magical brews and potions. Sometimes the fire is kindled in the cauldron itself. Some witches in fact use ordinary household pots — consecrated, of course.

In public imagination, the cauldron (your own cooking pot) was equally a tool you could use to kill a witch. By performing folk magic you could force a witch down your chimney, where she will fall into your cooking pot and be scalded to death. In order for this to work, people had to imagine a witch small enough to fall down a chimney, so it was necessary to believe that witches could transmogrify. This made them even more scary, because now you believed a witch could get in through any tiny crack.

Haynes King – An Old Friend Failing 1880

The shape of the cauldron resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. Its circular shape symbolises never-ending life and regeneration.

Things are heated inside a cauldron, transforming from one thing into another, hence the cauldron also symbolises germination and transformation.

Traditional cauldrons have three legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the three fates. Any cauldron with three legs has strong associations with divination.

Cauldrons are strongly associated with cannibals, e.g. ogres. A cauldron of burning oil means punishment is coming, e.g. in earlier, more disturbing versions of Sleeping Beauty.

But in Celtic tradition, the cauldron symbolises abundance, cornucopia, resuscitation and inexhaustible sustenance. In these stories the dead are frequently thrown into the cauldron and crawl out alive the next day. For this meaning, we can look to a fairytale such as The Magic Porridge Pot (generally illustrated as a mini cauldron in picture books). The pot saves a community from famine but also wreaks havoc, in line with the good and evil duplicity of mythological cauldrons. Likewise in China, the cauldron is a receptacle for offerings. but also a container for torture and capital punishment.

Norse legend is a bit different. According to Nordic tradition, the roaring cauldron is the source of all rivers.

Parable of the Burning Pot, engraved by the Dalziel Brothers published 1881
Ezekiel and the Boiling Pot Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones,

The Chalice

A chalice is a cup or grail generally used in rituals. The Catholic church makes use of a highly decorated chalice in ceremony. Pagans used a much simpler one.

The chalice itself symbolises water. Like the cauldron, the chalice is associated with femininity because of its shape, and because of its use as a vessel (women were and still are considered vessels for carrying other humans). Women are also linked to water because women are linked to the moon — menstrually — and the moon influences tides. We all begin life in the womb in water. Like most associations, it’s a double-edged sword for women. Water, like women, is essential to life. (Women, eh? Can’t live with em, can’t live without em.)

The Holy Grail

As mentioned above, in mystical, pre-Christian times there was a magical cauldron of the Celtic Gods that never emptied and kept everyone satisfied, as mentioned above. This legend is the O.G. of mythology leading to the Holy Grail — the cup that Christ was meant to have drank from at the Last Supper, or maybe it was the container that caught his blood during his crucifixion… who knows?

This sacred vessel went missing (or never existed in the first place), so today ‘the Holy Grail’ means something unfindable but highly treasured. There’s a subcategory of King Arthur tales called Holy Grail Legends, which have kept the rumours alive.

According to Jung, the psychoanalyst, the grail is an emblem of the spirit and symbolises “the inner wholeness for which men have always been searching”. The Philosopher’s Stone, from alchemy, fulfils the same symbolic function — the search for something elusive within oneself.

Header painting is by Leslie Hunter: Kitchen Utensils, c.1914–18.

Symbolism of the Veil

The Entombment c.1805 William Blake 1757-1827

A veil symbolises a separation. The separation might be:

  1. between two states of being (e.g. married and unmarried)
  2. between physical objects
  3. between concepts

Veils are typically made from diaphanous material. At first glance the nature of the separation appears flimsy. Importantly, the separation is two-directional.

Christmas Card by Edward Gorey; 1925-2000

Veil as both ‘revealing’ and ‘hiding’

The word ‘revelation’ comes from Latin revelatio, which means to draw back the veil. Hidden knowledge is often said to be ‘veiled’. These two functions highlight what is easy to miss about the symbolism of the veil: It means two quite different things at once. Symbols are commonly ‘multivalent’, meaning they have multiple applications, interpretations, meanings and values.

Let’s take the example of a nun. Crucially, a nun who ‘takes the veil’ to become a Bride of Christ is removing herself from the world, but she is also removing the world from herself.

Perhaps this same symbolism holds in marriages between flesh-and-blood people, though the veil as marriage symbol does differ somewhat. These days the veil is often simply a wedding accoutrement, but across cultures, marriage veils traditionally symbolise patriarchal claims on women as wives.

In a crystal clear example of misogyny, the Greek word for veil is ‘hymen’. Historically, the lifting of the bride’s veil at a wedding symbolises the tearing of the hymen on her wedding night. (The hymen does not in fact ‘tear’ but ‘stretches’ and makes for terrible proof of virginity, in turn a terrible concept.)

There’s another item of clothing/costume with a dual purpose, and which also hides the face. You guessed it; it is the mask, seen clearly on a character such as the Harlequin. The Harlequin’s mask is about:

  1. the sacred
  2. the profane

Maybe this duality of masks functioning in two opposite ways seems like an enigma, until we accept the fact that humans are perfectly capable of holding onto two contradictory beliefs at the same time.

I believe the following passage helps to explain the meaning of Kenneth Grahame’s title The Wind In The Willows:

In midmost of the stream, embraced in the weir’d shimmering arm-spread, a small island lay anchored, fringed close with willow and silver birch and alder. Reserved, shy, but full of significance, it hid whatever it might hold behind a veil, keeping it till the hour should come, and, with the hour, those who were called and chosen.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind In The Willows, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”.

Of all the trees, the willow feels most like a hidden room, with its drooping branches. In this way, the willow tree conceals, except, of course, when the wind blows. Then, and only then, are you revealed a little to the outside world. The Wind In The Willows is full of masking and unmasking motifs.

In The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, ‘ivy trails’ function in a similar way, keeping hidden the door to the walled garden. Mary Lennox only finds it once a big gust of wind swings aside some loose ivy trails and she sees the round knob of a door.

Veils Around The World

The veil is thought to protect (as an apotropaic item of clothing). Therefore, somehow penetrating or lifting a veil happens in many kinds of initiation around the world and across history, not just in marriage.

In Islam, the Qu’ran says women should be addressed from behind a veil, hence the existence of the hijab, which is how the symbolism has been put into practice. Because veils are seen as bi-directional, defenders of the hijab say that it offers women freedom (from objectification) as well as protection.

Brides often wear veils, and perhaps again once widowed. The veil is a crucial part of the attire of the 19th century Black Widow. Ironically, these veils afforded the opposite of ‘protection’ — they were actively harmful to health:

Called a “weeping veil,” this shroud was made of a crimped silk fabric called crape, and wearing it allowed one to “weep with propriety,” as the women’s magazine M’me Demorest’s Quarterly Mirror of Fashions put it in 1862. Unfortunately, due to the dyes and chemicals used to the process the fabric, these veils could also cause skin irritation, respiratory illness, blindness, and even death.

Racked

When did Western women give up the tradition of wearing a mourning veil?

…by the 1890s, mourning conventions had shifted. Many fashion magazines and etiquette manuals were now urging readers to wear just a light net veil, or stick with the crape veil but let it hang down one’s back. Sales of mourning crape plummeted.

Racked

We still see the custom of mourning veils. In Muslim tradition, woman mourners are asked to wear a scarf or veil to funerals.

In Buddhism, the concept of Maya (translated as “pretense” or “deceit”) functions as a symbolic veil which separates pure reality from the illusory nature of the world we live in. I suspect the symbolism of the mask also comes into play here and is equally bi-directional — the separation clearly works both ways.

The following is from an anthropologist studying the Pentecostal and supernatural beliefs in Papua New Guinea. Importantly, many people in this part of the world mix supernatural beliefs with beliefs introduced by Christianity, hence talk of witches:

First, Christian piety manifests as “light” or “shine” in the body and person of the devout. Pious Christians, those who especially exhibit the presence of the Holy Spirit, are so bright they are like “mirrors”: they reflect back the invasive gaze of the witch. Second, and similarly, people discuss the blood of Christ as offering protection from witches. While often used as a metaphor, where the blood of Christ symbolizes redemption from sin, it is often described by my informants in quite material and bodily terms as a veiling shroud that prevents witches from seeing inside a person. Rather than the interior of bodies, the witches will instead see only the blood of Christ. One might say that the blood of Christ on the exterior of the body is actually the interior of the Christian body being made exterior, a body being turned inside-out. All of these ideas evoke powerful Melanesian constructs linking power and persuasion to what can and cannot be seen, how people make themselves visible to one another, and how that visibility implicates people in moral relationships to each other.

Becoming Witches

In other words, symbolic veils help to make someone immune from the powers of persuasion, whether that persuasion comes from witches, or capitalism, or wherever. When I think of a veil, I conjure the image of a wedding veil, made of diaphanous material. But in this part of the world, the Blood of Christ functions as a veil.

Therefore, when considering the concept of a veil, the Papua New Guinean example reminds us that veils come in various forms, in their case, the blood of Christ. As a Westerner, I personally find this idea of blood as veil a difficult concept. This difficulty demonstrates how significantly our own cultures mould us when it comes to the ‘universal’ interpretation of symbols (not so universal after all).

The Hag of Beara

The Hag of Beara (Irish: An Chailleach Bhéara, also known as The White Nun of Beara, or The Old Woman of Dingle) is a mythic Irish Goddess (a Cailleach or a divine hag, crone, or creator deity; literally “veiled one” (caille translates as “hood”, the implications that the woman is a nun) associated with the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland, who was thought to bring winter. She is best known as the narrator of the medieval Irish poem “The Lament of the Hag of Beara”, in which she bitterly laments the passing of her youth and her decrepit old age.

Wikipedia

Cailleach means three things in Gaelic, unrelated until you know the mythology:

  1. Hag
  2. Nun
  3. Veil

Like many violent, ugly, cannibalistic hags from folklore, the Hag of Beara is unhappy because she hasn’t had any children. She must also live forever because she doesn’t have children to carry on the family line.

Why the veil, given what we know about how veils function symbolically? It’s popularly believed that she wore a veil to make herself mysterious. But does that go far enough?

The guy in the video below uses the analogy used by Joseph Campbell, the snake shedding its skin. One standout feature of this particular Irish hag is that if a man dares to kiss her, he experiences the privilege of a rebirth. So the veil in relation to this particular hag might emphasise the fact that there is a barrier between two quite different states of being.

Veils and Katherine Mansfield

Taking The Veil” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, about a young woman who imagines a life in which she is about to become a Bride of Christ instead of a flesh-and-blood earthly bride. Many of Mansfield’s short stories lamented the disappearance of freedom and autonomy which came with subsuming oneself inside a relationship, especially as experienced by women. For me, the veil in this story exists symbolically as a division between the main character’s fantasy life and her real one.

Mansfield was no doubt interested in the symbolism that could be eked out of a veil. In “A Dill Pickle“, about a woman who meets an old beau and finds him even more insufferable than he was six years ago, Mansfield concludes with:

She had buttoned her collar again and drawn down her veil.

This is an excellent example of multivalent veil symbolism. Sure, Vera is closing herself off to the possibility of marriage with this man. But I think there’s more going on. Throughout their meeting in the cafe, Vera has been careful to subdue her appetite. She hesitates before accepting sustenance, as expected of a lady. But this is a thin disguise. The ‘beast’ in Vera is clawing to get out. In the end, she must leave the cafe before it reveals itself, busting her cover as a society lady, living covertly in genteel poverty. The ‘thinness’ of the veil is what’s emphasised here.

Header image: The Entombment c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827