Friday, 12 July 2013

In praise of foxes, hermes and mythic dis-information

Just out the other side of a nine day teaching intensive - first with my compadres at the School of Myth, and then onto seven days with the wild and erudite David Abram. It was grand. Coleman Barks rolls in to Devon in just over a week - look out for us at the Thursday night of the Quest festival in Newton Abbot, and i'm leading a Mythteller short workshop there on the saturday.

Something brand new for 2014. "THE GREEN TEETH OF THE EARTH, THE BLUE TENT OF SKY: Reawakening the Ecological Imagination" - from April - July next year at Schumacher college - guest teachers include Tony Hoagland, John Gouldthorpe and Stephan Harding and a couple more to be announced - (not all beardy men BTW).
Places are limited, and i suspect will go fast. Here's the link:

I am also pleased to say that i've been offered a visiting fellowship at Schumacher, and that i happily accept - there are some wonderful eruptions of the imagination happening at the place. Mythology as the heart of ecology - Ole!

Here's some thoughts about foxes, mythic dis-information and wild Hermes.

Down in Devon, a great trickster is fox. I met fox the first time not in the wild, but in the sprawl of south London – its first trick. It was about 4.30 in the morning and I was leaving my small shared flat in Brockley to spend a day fasting and walking in Epping Forest, about an hour outside of the city. As I turned the key in lock I heard a slight sound in the dark, and there it was. A male fox – a dog, reynard, or tod fox. It had a glowing brownish red coat, black legs and ears, resplendent tail with a swish of white at its tip. Given the tail as well, it seemed about four foot long. It rotated its ears and sniffed.

There were a good few moments of eyeballing where I tried to take in as much as I could of its atmosphere before it strolled – not bounded – slowly round me and further into the small garden. The walk I was on was preparation for a four day fast, which meant that from that turn in the lock till my dusk return I was in a tacit sort of ritual – that I would experience a flood of information about my life; a sort of tacit hall of mirrors. To see a wild animal, least of all the fox, within several seconds of it beginning, was quite a moment.

The day was long, bewildering and tiring. I had started to resent the lack of food and my mind was a buzz with conflict, about as far from being ‘at one with nature’ as it is honestly possible to get. I was sheltering under an elm from sheets of rain, when suddenly, a fox burst from the undergrowth with a still twitching squirrel in it’s mouth, elegantly flashed past and was gone. That woke me up, grounded me, and got me past the twitching squirrel of thoughts that I’d been carrying. I followed the fox trail and got lost, only finding a road some time on. Later that day, in a cafĂ© in Liverpool Street Station, whilst tearing chunks from a burger and shoveling down fries, I turned over the meetings with town and country fox in my mind. I still am. Over the years, fox has been a frequent but distant visitation.

Fox knows about giving dis-information, ask any Devon farmer. When hunted it will deliberately run through a flock of sheep, just to break the flow of its scent to the hounds, creating confusion. When hunting it will hide in a bush and mimic the anguished squeal of a rabbit, often bringing out a nursing mother or old buck to see what is happening. Their death usually. Still, rabbits are smart too, so the fox only has a minute or two till they get used to its voice and start to ignore it. Fox plays the same trick imitating baby lambs, with ewes wandering off towards the sound and the fox. Up in the Snowdonia valleys, I have sat at night sipping tea on a dry stone wall and heard this eerie game.

Fox is a great storyteller, and good with character roles, as we have just seen. They have a five octave range and up to twelve different sounds to produce when adult. Like the fairy, they despise iron – the gamekeepers say they can smell it. If caught in an iron trap, they, unlike a dog, will make no sound of complaint, but steadily gnaw through their own limb rather than be caught. They’re tough that way.

Fox loves spreading rumors about its strength and genius. To this day, locals will claim that when fox kills a goose, it slings it over its back and trots off – impossible but wonderful. Another great storyteller, Shakespeare, recognized kin when he saw it and gives 31 praises to fox scattered through his work. A very old piece of Devon folklore is the notion that when fox is troubled by fleas they take a piece of wool in their mouth and starts to step slowly into a stream. As they get deeper, the anxious fleas crawl through the fur and eventually end up on the wool when only their head is above the water. Once all are on, they drop the wool and are free of the itching.

Fox’s cunning is such that they have a somewhat ambivalent reputation – in the myth-world they frequently steals coyote’s food, or nips off with the sun, or outwit the wolf. The Japanese love the fox – called kitsune - and celebrate its intelligence, magical juice and, mythically at least, its long life. Really powerful foxes are in possession of nine resplendent tails. For a fox to become a human all it has to do is place a human skull over his own face. One final piece of vital information from the Japanese is this: any woman encountered alone, at either dusk or night, could be a fox. That explains a lot.

Myth is full of dis-information as a ritual tool – remember that story of Bluebeard? A youngest sister marries a man with a long, flowing, dark blue beard. A powerful man. He has to go traveling and offers her the run of the castle. He encourages feasting, company, cheer, good times. He gives her a heavy ring of keys to each room – but just that one thing. Do not. Under any circumstances. Use the key that opens the room underneath the castle. Of course, she can’t help herself, is magnetized to use it. Inside the locked room she finds a floor awash with blood, and many other old wives of Bluebeard hanging like smoked meat on hooks from the wall.

Remember Finn MacColl? He meets Finegas, a hermit waiting by the bank of a river, waiting, as it was prophesied that he would catch the salmon of knowledge in the Boyne. When eventually he catches it, the hermit sets young Finn to roasting it – but just one thing. Do not. Under any circumstances. Eat even the tiniest morsel of the fish. Of course not! The last thing on my mind. Whilst roasting this fish, Finn blisters a thumb on the bubbling skin, brings it to his mouth and absently tastes the fish. In a second he takes on all the knowledge that the hermit was waiting to receive. But when the hermit returns, he reveals that he deliberately went away for this very moment to occur.

Remember the story of the Handless Maiden? When the maiden’s husband is called to war she sends him the happy news that she has conceived a child. On the way to the battle front the messenger is lulled into a sleep by a dark spirit who contorts the message to it being that she has birthed a changeling – half dog. The king bears up well, sends his love back and to ask for whatever she requires. The message is again distorted; he’s furious and demands the heart and tongue be ripped from the maiden as proof that the woman is dead. From this awful news the maiden and child have to go into hiding, and the king spends seven years wandering the deep forest looking for them.

The key that Bluebeard gives his wife opens the door to seeing the hidden horror of her husband; the instruction not to taste the Salmon is to invite the possibility that Finn will, the slandered message of her husband leads to her ultimately growing her own hands back, and his wandering in the woods weathers him into an appropriate husband. The dis-information often comes in a way that on an immediate level seems ghastly, but in the biggest picture is vital for the wider unfolding of the story.

Mythic dis-information is a very clever way of understanding humans. It knows that we don’t often respond to strict orders, and that the results of our choices are rarely black and white – all three of the above stories hold paradox within them. Like fox, these dis-informers break their scent, pretend to be another kind of animal, story, piece of information. Whether we wander out into the jaws of fox or slink off on some other route, within myth, it is always in service for the wider stream of the story and the growth of the individuals within it. It’s rarely all good and rarely all bad.

Like fox scenting the iron of the trap, it understands the multiplicity of truth – those snapping jaws are the straight ahead, one answer, get to the point, three step perspective of literalism. The thing to remember is the intention behind it – within these stories, it is to lead towards a kind of sacred education, an ending of naivety, a greater capacity for life. It is in service to life. That is key – when dis-information falls out of a mythic ground - it can become simply deceit.

In much of my twenties, any time spent around the fire with native elders was rarely spent in the ‘straight talk’ of the West, or any kind of elevated ‘spiritual’ language. Any question asked was rebuffed, rebooted, turned on its head, fell into silence, scuffed, cuffed, flew three times round the room and was answered two hours later in an entirely different conversation. They were quite rightly suspicious of straight instruction, something that hadn’t turned softly in the psyche a little, rather than just leapt from brain to brain - there would be no wildness present in an answer like that.

To the literal mind, myth itself is a profound form of dis-information. There can be no truth in its images - a hedgehog standing on a rooster, playing the bagpipes? Try to be serious! But the image, with its wayward intelligence, distrusts the societal rush to the concrete picture and uses the brilliance of metaphor to disable (at least briefly) the triumph of logic. Logic is not the enemy however, but a welcome guest at a wider card game.

We remember that fox is a wonderful storyteller. A king amongst storytellers, and of dis-information, is Hermes. Hermes was born of a love affair between Zeus and Maia, a mountain nymh. He was born in his mother's cave and pretty much was born hungry. As he gazed from the cave he saw the many cattle of his half brother, bright Apollo. How many of us have stood in the shadows gazing at our bright brother’s wealth? Using a strange backward trail of thinking, he steals fifty and tucks them away nearby. Remember, he was only hours old, not even a toddler. When his mother speaks to him he feigns baby talk – gaga, boo boo, walla walla.

Apollo, of course, discovers the missing cattle and drags the baby to Zeus for a reckoning. Rather like filing a police report, bright Apollo gives Zeus the facts. If Apollo gives the facts, then Hermes gives the story. Well, a story. A story of mad imagination, possible slander, elevated language, gutter-humor and ever ramping up the drama. Hermes makes no attempt to link it to the literal, rolling his eyes and laughing as the story gets hotter and more speculative. Zeus is beside himself with laughter, and recognizes that ‘another’ kind of truth is presenting itself to him, that in amongst the dis-information of literal statistics, baby Hermes is revealing a depth to the situation that Apollo can only dream of.

So amen and hootzpah! to the fox, alive alive in the greeness of it all.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

No comments: