Wandering Through Faerie Land: Metaphor and the Semantic Landscape
Author: Rhys Chisnall
On Midsummer’s Day, the corn stood half grown and green, knee high in Suffolk fields. The bumblebee buzzed as it flew from flower to flower and overhead high above the corn the skylark sang. The midsummer’s sun beat down from high in the clear blue sky as I walked along besides the footpath than ran between the field and the hedgerow. I hadn’t drunk enough water so as I walked I noticed the sleight effects of dehydration. I continued onwards, creeping thorns grasping at my boots, while the stinging nettles failed to penetrate my jeans. The heat of midday, the smell of the corn, the summer flowers, the humming bee, the singing skylark all swirled in my awareness. And then it seemed to me that time stopped; it stood still.
I was in eternity, in faerie land, out of time. The experience and the realisation of timelessness was both beautiful and horrible. Beautiful as there is no ageing and no sting of death. But it was also horrible for nothing reaches its potential in faerie land. The corn never ripens and babies are never born; trapped in between time beautiful and horrible, both and neither.
Then the air moved again and a breeze stirred the corn which began to ripple and sway. I heard the buzzing of the bee again and the skylark continued to sings up high. I was back in time, back in the field. Did I ever really leave it? Had I really been in faerie land? Is it really a real place?
For some people it is, they believe that fairyland is an actual literal place. They may have had experiences similar to mine or more likely have read about it in books on popular Wicca or even in books on mythology. Many of the ‘Celtic’ myths feature stories of fairies, the Sidhe or the Tuatha de Danaan (what fairies are is another story) . How are we to view such things as intelligent people who are interested in a view of the world, which is life-enhancing but still congruent with what we know about reality? There just seems to be no way that faerie land can be a literal place. Remembering as Doreen Valiente reminds us in her book An ABC of Witchcraft that faerie comes from the Old French meaning enchantment, perhaps it could still be saved as a metaphor.
Metaphors are essential to how we use language; linguists tell us that we could not have complex language without them. Simply put they are when we describe something (called the target by linguists) by analogy (the source) . So, for example, we might say that my child is a fairy. The child is the target and the fairy is the source. This does not mean that we believe that our child is literally a fairy rather we are suggesting that she has some fae like qualities. Interestingly we somehow know which fairy qualities to apply to the child, so unless we are on the autistic spectrum we would not think that the child is an immortal with wings or likes to steal babies and put changelings in their place (remember no babies are born in faerie land) . Rather we would assume that the metaphor meant that she was small and cute looking or perhaps cute and full of mischief. So the description of my experience is a metaphor, an analogy. But what is it a metaphor for?
This metaphor is how I would try to communicate what my experience is like and what it means to me. Quite simply, we use metaphors to hint at things we can’t describe directly or in any other way. To understand this we need to look at three types of metaphor although there are in reality many more. The three we are interested in are conceptual metaphors, paralogical (or absolute) metaphors and extended metaphors. My experience falls under the heading of paralogical and extended metaphors but let’s first discuss conceptual metaphors.
Conceptual metaphors are used to illustrate one concept with reference to another. It sounds complicated but you may be surprised to learn that you use conceptual metaphors all the time. Consider for example when we say, “it was the high point of my life”. This is a classic example of a conceptual metaphor. If you think about it unless you were parachuting or bungee jumping you were not literally high up. It is a metaphor that we use to describe how we feel about a particular time in our lives. Another example is “I turned the music down”, after all music noise does not literally have a direction. What is especially interesting about conceptual metaphors is that they are indicative of our subjective view of reality. They illustrate some of the filters through which we perceive the world.
Consider for a moment what we mean by high point. It rests on an assumption that high is something that is good and desirable, while conversely low, as in “it was a low point in my life” we see as bad and something that we intuitively see as undesirable. The American magician and Linguist Patrick Dunn in his book, ‘Magic, Power, Language, Symbol’ (a book well worth reading) suggests that metaphors in general are so ingrained in our though patterns and assumptions that they often fall under the radar to all but linguists. Yet language and thought are fundamental to how we subjectively experience the world.
The underlying metaphors which make up beliefs are so important and taken so literally that Professor Joseph Campbell has lamented, “People are dying for metaphors all over the place”. Conceptual metaphors are worth a great deal of consideration and I recommend keeping your ears open for them and meditating on how they underpin your assumptions of reality. This is a very worthwhile and illuminating exercise.
Without paralogical metaphors the Craft, the occult or religion in general could not operate. Paralogical metaphors are utterances where there is no obvious link between the source and the target. So when we say, “the weather is pants”, you have to be in on the metaphor to understand what is being said. There is no way to infer the link between weather and pants if you were not already in on the expression and understood what it means. It also makes some underlying assumptions on pants suggesting that they are not very nice things. I wonder what assumptions people who use the term, “the dog’s bollocks”, make.
Paralogical metaphors can be seen as being symbols and the study of symbols is called semiotics. The discipline of semiotics includes not just written things like pentagrams and ankhs as symbols, nor even just spoken language, but body language, haircuts and the deliberate arrangement of trees; in fact anything that carries information. Some postmodernists such as the magician Patrick Dunn argue that as everything we perceive and experience is represented by information (via symbols to consciousness) in the brain, so our whole subjective experience is a symbolic representation. There may be an objective world out there, in fact there probably is, but we can never know it directly. We only know it indirectly through our senses that provide us with symbolic a representation filtered through an attention bottleneck based on biology, biases and the symbolic information of our beliefs formed by experiences. We live in our own little reality bubbles, in our own stories and narratives created from our symbolic representations. This is an idea that is finding considerable favour with many modern occultists, mostly because it seems to be backed up from the finding of perceptual, cognitive and discursive psychology.
The most obvious examples of paralogical metaphors in the Craft are tools, symbols, the elements, and the gods. Let us take tools to illustrate what I mean. In the Craft, as in ceremonial magic, there are several symbolic tools, which represent certain things. These are paralogical metaphors because these symbols are not obvious and difficult to infer the target (the concept/experience we are trying to understand) from the source (the tool and metaphorical expression) . There are several tools and symbols used in the Craft. As the Craft is organised into small autonomous covens which tools are used depends upon the Craft tradition and the coven.
In the coven in which I am a member the tools used are the besom, the athame (sword) , the dish, the chalice, and the censer. We also use other symbols such as the stang, the cords, the skull, the hare and others. Like all good symbols these parabolic metaphors have a loose associations, allowing room for individual investment of meaning. Roughly speaking the stang is a metaphor for the Dark Lord (who is himself a metaphor) , raised during the winter months between Halloween and Beltaine, the besom is the union of male and female, the cords for masculinity or femininity depending on the colour and the skull for death. The elemental tools are the athame for will and phallus (a metaphor for masculinity) , the dish for the body, the censer for thought and the cup for both emotions and the mystery of femininity, life and the Lady (again more metaphors for metaphors) . The tools themselves are not important, it is what they are metaphors for, in other words what they represent which is.
This is all very well but you would be justified in asking why bother with this talk of metaphors? The answer is that these metaphors have a semantic content in the mind of the practitioner. In linguistics, semantics means meaning. So in other words the tools and symbols of the Craft hold meaning for the practitioner. These symbols activate the meanings in the mind of the Witch when they are used. For example, if the Witch uses the athame to cast the circle (another paralogical metaphor) then its meaning infers and invokes the will of the Witch. These metaphors are like keys that flip the mind into the state that the metaphor represents, provided they have been invested with their semantic content.
As such the Witch can deliberately buy into and build up these semantic connections. As paralogical metaphors are not obvious, so then associations need to be built and assumptions about reality implicit in the metaphors need to be examined. The witch builds up a semantic landscape, a landscape of meaning and metaphor. It is in this semantic landscape, itself a metaphor, in which the Craft operates. The world of faerie, the world of enchantment.
Occultists, philosophers and scientists have a long history of using metaphorical places in order to better understand difficult concepts and meanings. For example in the Western Mystery Traditions we have the astral and inner planes. The problem with using metaphor, especially in the Occult, is they are often taken as literal, in other words some people believe that the astral and inner planes are real places. Rather they are analogous to the ideas of ‘prime space’ in mathematics, ‘design space’ in evolutionary biology and ‘possible worlds’ in philosophy, though used to understand different concepts.
Prime space is a metaphorical space which helps mathematicians understand how reality would be effected if the mathematical language of the universe was different in some way. It is a useful tool because by understanding what would happen under different conditions it helps mathematicians to get to grips with why the math of the universe behaves the way it does. Likewise with design space, in enables the evolutionary biologist to understand why organisms are the way they are by exploring the way they could be but are not. The ‘possible worlds’ in philosophy allows philosophers to conduct thought experiments, which highlight our intuitions about concepts, and the way the world is. These are metaphors, conceptual tools and so are astral and inner planes. In a sense like myth, they are extended metaphors. They go beyond just one symbol, into many symbols that are analogous to states of mind, complex concepts and help us to understand complex information.
The astral plane is a metaphor for the emotional mind while the inner planes are a metaphor for the deeper levels of the psyche. They describe states of mind where the characters of deities, elementals and other spirits (more metaphors and memeplexes) can communicate with the occultist, or where the unconscious mind can come through, communicating according to Freud and Jung through the language of symbols. Likewise the semantic landscape is not a real place, but rather entering into a state of mind where one is aware of the symbols as metaphors and what they represent. The more one connects with and builds up these metaphors, the richer ones semantic landscape. For example, if you learn the folklore, the medicinal and magical properties of local plants, a walk in the countryside becomes richer in the sense that you will also be taking a walk through a semantic landscape full of meaning and association. Each plant will be a metaphor for various states of minds, various experiences, various connections, enriching your life and being put at your disposal.
You may be tempted to ask the question so what? And that would be a good question to ask. Why bother building up our semantic landscape and considering what assumptions our metaphors make about reality? The answer is as mentioned before, we are as Stewart and Cohen suggests ‘the storytelling ape’. We perceive and communicate our reality as a narrative. This is why Jung’s ideas about archetypes are so powerful even though we know they are not literally embedded in our brains (if you cut open a brain you won’t find a single archetype anywhere) . Rather they are embedded in how we tell stories, including the stories of ourselves. Stories are metaphors, they are full of meaning, which operates on many different levels, but they are not directly the way the world is. If they were then we would have discovered evolution, germ theory, the heliocentric solar system much, much sooner than we did.
By building up our semantic landscape, by taking control of our stories of reality, we can then change them if we wish. And if we are really good at it, and understand other people’s stories, we can change those as well. By understanding that our experience of the world (and entities) is a collection of narratives we can also avoid the obsession and eventual mental breakdown that has afflicted some literally minded dabblers in the occult. When we build up our semantic landscape, when we weave meaning and metaphor it gives us some power over the narrative, though the narrative will always have some control over us.
My experience of wandering through faerie land is a metaphor for an experience. It is a metaphor for the state of mind where I experienced the wonder and horror of eternity. Faerie land is not a real place, there are no literal fairies out there, but the experience nonetheless like many other experiences that many others and I have had was real and very useful. The experience of faerie is the state of mind that we enter into when we cast the magic circle. Putting aside the results of operant conditioning of casting the circle in that after a period of time and experience it automatically puts us into a certain state of mind, the circle becomes the semantic landscape. It is the world of metaphor, representing not only the totality universe but also the state of mind that is out of time and all of time.
The circle represents the whole of time, a metaphor for all the year, the whole of our lives and so, like faerie land, it is a mind state in eternity. We are metaphorically between the world of the physical and the semantic landscape of our narrative minds, wandering through the story, wandering through fairyland. And it is from here, in those states of mind that we can experience and change the stories and encounter the characters of our narratives including our self. It is when we are wandering through faerie land that we meet that grand narrative which we call the Divine.