This month Little Toller publishes Paul Kingsnorth’s new book, Savage Gods. For this series on The Clearing Paul invited poets, writers and artists from across the world to respond in their own way to a simple, one-word theme: transformation. The result is a series of explorations, in words and images, of the alchemical cycle of change: breakdown, rebirth and renewal. This story, illustrations and the accompanying commentary are by Martin Shaw.
There was a once a settlement of tents in the far snowy north. And winter came in, came in, came in. An old couple looked at the slate grey clouds, and shuddered at the bone-biting cold. It was their perishing they could see this winter. Their death. They cast an eye on their daughter and decided it was time for her to marry one of the young men of the settlement. That way they would get some muscle around the place.
One by one the men trudged over the snow to present themselves, and one by one she elected them too boring, too ugly, to full of themselves for her to consider. Tedious people.
What she really loved to do was walk. And one morning, at the height of all the auditions, she broke away and took herself across the snow. She was some distance from the settlement when she came across a man’s head on the ground. No body, just a head; seemingly quite alive.
He peered up at her and smiled; “hello,” he said. “Hello,” she replied.
For the rest of the day she found herself entangled in the most enthralling and imaginative conversation of her life. As dusk approached, so reluctant was she to call an end to it, she simply scooped the head up and took him back to the tent. Once inside she settled the head on a pillow and they continued. Mother and father in their tent nearby smiled at the laughter: “Ah, it seems like our daughter has chosen a mate!”
When they were not invited for an audience the next day they were offended, especially as they had heard the chatty rumblings and felt the excited energy for many hours now. Finally the daughter went to fetch water from the nearby sea, only a short way from the tents. The father seized his chance, padded across and opened up the daughter’s tent flap to see who the young suitor was. What he could not have contemplated, what would never have entered his mind, was just a head on a pillow staring at him. It spoke:
“You were not meant to see this.”
In a fit of rage, the father grabbed a stick from the fire and screwed it into the eye of the head. Blood shot from the pit and poured a dark river right out the door and onto the snow. The head rolled on the bloodied stream out the tent and across the snow, until it actually fell into the ocean and disappeared under the waves. Seeing the scene from the waters edge, the girl screamed and dived after her beloved.
Down they sank, to the very bottom of the sea floor. It was there she saw that her wounded love had been met by other heads like his, young and old, male and female. They were clearly agitated as the blood continued to drift up in a black haze from what had once been his eye. Even so, she pleaded with him to come back to the surface, to come back to her tent.
“Reading between the lines, I don’t think your father is happy with my company.” said the blinded suitor, “but you cannot stay here under the deep water either, I cannot be where you are, and you cannot be where I am. I am so sorry.”
With that the maiden’s heart broke clean open and she shot agonisingly upwards, through the grey northern sea. But it was not to her settlement that she returned, but still further upwards, up into the sky and higher.
After a time, she found herself not on earth at all, but on the surface of the moon. The only thing up there was a Moon Palace, where she made her home. From this high place she could watch the affairs of the world, but was removed from it, above it all. Things below may have interested her, but they never truly moved her. In this way she stayed safe. In this way, she took her hands away from touching the things of the world. In this way, thirty years passed.
One day, as usual, she was watching what was going on in other peoples’ lives. She saw three hunters gathered round a seal hole. As was custom, they were praying before they hunted. The third hunter’s words caught her attention, caught her breath: so eloquent were their shape, so truthful their character, that she felt something move in her heart for the first time she could remember. As he finished his prayer, he hurled up three handfuls of water to carry his prayer to the gods, the third actually licking the underside of the moon.
Tears came. So touched was she by the prayer that she longed to return to the earth, even with its disappointments and betrayals. “How I wish I was down there”, she murmured.
Suddenly, from nowhere, there was a little old woman standing next to her.
“How far do you think you are from the earth, child?” She asked.
“At least two weeks away” the woman answered.
The old woman gazed deeply into her eyes.
“You are only three steps away. You were only ever three steps away. But it is so important that when you come back down to earth, you come down with your eyes open.”
Emboldened, the woman elected to descend.
The first step was good,
the second easier,
but as her foot
finally touched the earth itself,
for a second her eyes closed.
At that moment she shifted in shape,
she erupted and became
all the spiders and all the webs
that fill the world to this day.
Here are a few thoughts on this story.
We all know what it must be like to marry a local boy. A local idea. A local attitude. You’ve seen those boys your whole life, grown up with them, maybe made love with them once or twice. You know the dance steps. The emphasis to stay with what you know. The town, the job, the familial expectations. No surprises.
So you play for time, take a walk. And what do you find? Something thrilling; unusual, yes, but thrilling. Someone that speaks to you of the areas dearest to your soul. That light you up, fascinate you, intrigue you. You serve in the same temple, but know slightly different moves. The only problem is that there’s no body. That means many things from many perspectives. A couple of traditional views would be that he is an ancestor, or a spirit husband for a shaman. It’s unusual for sure. Not of the settlement.
To a Greek, though, this suitor is a Puer Eternus, a being of wit and light, something like a boy-god. His hands remain gloved, not rough with the world’s scaldings; his conversation crackles with nuance and even grace. He can make us a little dizzy. But there’s something weightless about him.
There were whole years of the sixties where the Puer was rampant: in music, clothes, stirring stuff up. Left, right, centre. There is sense of possibility when he’s around. He’ll talk about Blake till your mind hums with electricity – just don’t ask him to scrub some potatoes or change the oil. When I was sixteen, I would have traded village life for this kind of disembodied genius any day of the week.
So we bring back our first great soul-love, and what does the community – specifically the father – do? Stabs it in the eye. You come back from Crete with a little statue of the Snake Goddess and have it confiscated by an evangelical aunt, your grime mix-tape dismissed as garbage. Community life loves to flog a mystic. That’s the darker side of the oft-revered ‘village-mindedness’.
At this aberration we fall into deep waters. Down we go. And it’s here we realise something about our bodiless love. Neither of us can live entirely in each others’ orbit. We can’t stay forever in the swirling waters of psyche, nor can they be buoyant in the daily affairs of things: the slog of it all. They are too rarefied for that, it’s simply not their function.
Heartbreak like that tells us we can’t go home. We can’t pretend we didn’t love deeply. We can’t pretend we are the same. We can’t marry the village boy. So, rather like our beloved, we leave our bodies too, we leave the things of earth entirely and encounter the Moon Palace.
This can be a very subtle form of severance, because it looks like you’re still here. You’re not.
Oh, you and I can still wander the bazaars, malls and pool halls of this world, but we are far away. We are distanced. As I’ve said before, passions become hobbies. Relationships cool into conditional enterprises of limited time span at very best. Friends comment that we just don’t quite seem present. We laugh it off, but the truth is they’re right. We are simply not here. We are in the Moon Palace.
There is far less hurt up there, and big, unattached views. We don’t need to get caught up in the charred tangles of real loving. We can be remote, relish privacy, all to ourself. But there will come a point up there that privacy becomes secrecy, and coolness starts to become numbness.
It takes beauty to shake us. A prayer given by a seal-hunter, an act of bravery by a single mum, a death well managed. Something that opens the chambers of the heart. Beauty is the currency that makes us prepared to get down and amongst the dirt of life again.
But there is the council of the Old Lady of the Moon. When you come back down to earth you have to have your eyes open. No spiritual ecstasies, no whirling, no fasting, just eyes open. You are coming down, not going out. This is not the move of a naive girl but an experienced woman. It was always just three steps away. But those three steps should not be stumbled, and can’t be leapt. They are deliberate.
But this time there is no redemptive end. The eyes close and the body erupts into spiders and webs. Again, there is a cultural weave that is not always clear to us, peering through the bushes at this ancient story.
From an utterly personal standpoint, ignorant of many other perceptive insights, here’s a response.
When I carry naivety in later life, there is something particularly unpleasant about it. I gossip and my gossip becomes a web that catches and damages people in its stickiness. Do I set out to do it deliberately? Why no, of course not. Namaste.
I leave the ashram and find I’m exactly the same age emotionally I was when I went in. Moon Palaces can do that. So my way of trying to touch the earth is through my sophisticated moon-weave, because I never really looked acutely towards the dirt I was going to connect with. All those years, wriggled free of boring-life, ordinary labour, I ended up with an enormous deficit of how to actually muck in with others. I mean: the indignity of it all! Of incarnating. So I scuttle and gobble and prey on people. That way I am still controlling things, still looking down from a great height. Not getting hurt. That’s the main thing.
There is a great travesty of the spider here, and there could be many more positive ‘spins’ on the image, but at this moment I’d rather feel a little uncomfortable publicly. I’d rather take heed of the Old Woman’s warning. The Old Woman is a wise one, and her caution to be heeded.
A potent wound to the soul is a grievous thing. It’s unbearable and we have to bear it. So we fly to whatever safety we can find. And that retreat shapes us, just like the catastrophe shapes us, just like our childhood shapes us. But when we decide we are really going to sign up to become a human being again – at eighteen or eighty – the story says we need our eyes utterly open to the world, not secreted back into ourselves. We have to know that we don’t have the story; the story has us.
But let us also honour Dine and Hopi stories of a different kind of weaving, of a Grandmother Spider that wove the whole world together. Or of Robert the Bruce shivering in a cave watching a spider fixing its web – to try, try, try again. Spiders have patience, tenacity, and are universe makers in their way. If are our eyes are open, maybe we can create an entirely different kind of web. That may seem a little glib, but there’s something to it.
Plato used to speak of four modes of growing down into this life, none of which seem very glamorous: growing down into your family, growing down into a relationship with nature, growing down into a ritual life, growing down into your own body, honouring its every season. Glamorous or not, without some sense of them, we are a talking head in the snow, or a spider looking for prey.
We are all going to experience loss. Most of you reading this already have. There are many things, good and proper things, that we are not going to receive. As the poets say – the mermaids will not sing for me. We learn to live with less. It’s the ground you sow with those dark seeds that make you a human being, not the ten thousand things you’ve already been gifted. A dark seed step is what gets you down safely. It’s the ballast in the boat, the pebble in the boot. It’s what keeps us restless.
Martin Shaw is a mythologist and author. A respected storyteller, he has introduced thousands of people to the relationship between ancient stories and contemporary issues. His essay/conversation with Ai Weiwei has just been released by the Marciano Arts Foundation. Read more about Martin here.
Drawings by Martin Shaw