Talking Sky

Queen Square, Bath, July 2017

As June turned to July, I took the slow train to Bath for the annual conference of the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture. This year’s conference theme was ‘The Talking Sky: Myths and Meaning in the Celestial Spheres’. Judging by some of the conversations I’ve had, many people’s shutters come down at the mention of cosmology or the idea of meaning being derived from the stars – in short, astrology. And indeed the Sophia Centre is dedicated to the serious study of astrology. In the popular imagination, astrology is the dubious or fraudulent nonsense of newspaper columns (‘sun sign’ astrology, as it is distinguished). Such is the power of this belief, that even those who would seriously study ancient philosophy and mythology flinch from contemplating ancient astrology. And yet, as the speakers at this conference proved, with great erudition, charm and good humour, the movements of the heavenly bodies were of monumental importance to ancient people, and still hold meaning for many today.

A central idea for the conference was ‘naked eye astronomy’, as advocated by Bernadette Brady. Dr Brady provided a series of revelatory images of the annual interaction of the sun and moon as their relative position in the sky changes throughout the year. The high moon compensating for the low sun in winter, or the sun and moon rising and setting in the same positions at equinox, for example. The loss of naked eye astronomy – of the widespread knowledge of the patterns of sun, moon, and stars as they appear to us on earth – causes a ‘cultural divide’ between modern and ancient humans: we do not know the human view of the sky. Consequently, we lose access to the meaning contained in old myths because we do not recognise our sky.

This concept resonated most clearly in the papers which surveyed the astonishing constructions people built around the movements of the sun – standing stones, cairns, and the like. We all know about those. But what impressed itself upon me, as a novice in this area, was how much sheer trial and error the construction must have involved: generations of living with the knowledge of astronomical movements, and creating monumental structures which interact perfectly with the sun. Attendant to this is the realisation that the will to create these structures must derive from the sky’s significance to daily life in a way that is impossible to overstate.

Other papers addressed decidedly more modern materials. Claudia Rousseau drew connections between images of the coronation of the Virgin (such as that by Velázquez) and Ariadne’s catasterism in the Corona Borealis. Both of these have been addressed on this blog, but I never made the link between them (Ariadne here, Mary here).

Signe Cohen gave a delightful paper on the twelfth-century Norse poem ‘Alvíssmál’ (‘The Speech of the All-Wise’). In this poem, Thor challenges the dwarf Alvís to list the names of sky, sun, and moon, etc., as they are known to mortals, elves, gods, and the like. Alvís is turned to stone by the rising sun while he recites all the sun’s different names. As Dr Cohen drily put it, Alvís’s knowledge is ‘more theoretical than applied’. Once again, of course, the central idea is that, in the diverse names for the same cosmological phenomena, interpretations of the cosmos reflect the stance of the observer.

Ceiling Pan

Sunday morning at the conference began with Jenn Zahrt announcing she would start with some theory. This was music to my ears on this bright summer morning, and all the more involving for discussing the philosopher Jean Gebser, previously unknown to me. Gebser’s work is relevant to a strand of myth theory I have been researching which concerns myth as a system of thought (following Lévy-Bruhl, Cassirer, and so on). This is usually articulated as a split between the archaic or mythical mind and the modern, rational one. For Gebser the distinction is gradated rather than binary: he outlines five structures of consciousness: archaic, magical, mythical, mental/rational, and integral. Moreover, rather than the barriers between structures of consciousness being impermeable and culturally prescribed, it is possible to access all points on this scale. Is the comparative critical neglect of Gebser a result of his being perceived as a ‘new age’ figure? I’ll be looking into him.

Dr Zahrt’s talk also addressed astrologer Alfred Witte’s hypothetical planets. Witte struggled to name one of these planets, seeking an appropriate goddess. Eventually he settled on the name Hades. A strange decision, no? The perfect name was hidden in plain sight, next to Hades: why not Persephone? She is goddess of underworld, who often must not be named, referred to instead as the Korē, the ‘girl’. The unnameable goddess for the unnameable planet, still concealed behind Witte’s Hades.

The topic of my paper was the sun as mythic force in modern fiction. It forms part of my ongoing project to locate and study the sincere engagement with myth in recent literature. I focused on two sun-stricken novels of the 1960s: Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris, and The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard. Despite the apparent differences between the authors in question, both novels are united in their use of myth, of psychological ideas, and of the sun as an active presence. The novels demonstrate how our star  – alongside its material presence – retains a spiritual power in human life, well into our apparently disenchanted, rational age. The two authors offer different perspectives of the same condition: a human in modernity captivated by the power of the sun. In each case, the sun proves itself as our primal deity, its seemingly ceaseless power of light and heat matched by an eternal psychological power over our moods, sanity, sense of self. I was deeply gratified by the warm and attentive reception the paper received, and I came away having been given many promising suggestions for other contemporaneous novels on similar themes.

The conference was held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, which occupies a tremendous building on Queen Square, which – I have only just discovered – was once the home of Dr William Oliver, inventor of the Bath Oliver, which is a cracker I could eat all day. Papers were delivered in a room with four oval ceiling recesses. Pan (or perhaps a satyr) is in one, Demeter in a second, the third is blank, and the fourth has ‘do not paint’, as if awaiting Michelangelo’s return. As the conference drew to a close, I was privileged to hold the eye of Marduk (a votive amulet), dedicated by Nebuchadnezzar II around the sixth century BC, now in a private collection (another is in New York). Marduk, the great Babylonian creator deity, clearly bestowed his blessing on the whole proceedings.

Madrid, myths, emotions

In October I presented a paper at the biennial myth conference at Universidad Complutense, Madrid: ‘Myth and Emotions’. This was my second visit (the first, in 2014, culminated in a chapter in the fine collection Myths in Crisis: The Crisis of Myth, which I covered below). It’s a big conference, from Monday to Friday with papers in Spanish, French, and English, and I wasn’t able to attend the whole week. When I arrived, part way through an afternoon session, my Englishness painfully apparent, the empty bowl of tea-bags was instantly replenished. That’s the sign of some devoted and thoughtful conference organising.

Detail of horse from Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica detail, 1937. Museo Reina Sofia

The Essex myth blog hosts an endearing report on the conference, and I wrote some preliminary remarks there, so here I’ll limit my comments to other matters. In 2014, I planned an afternoon away from the conference to see Guernica at the Reina Sofía museum (it was controversially relocated from the Prado a few years ago). It is, of course, an absorbing work; one detail that impressed me, seeing the painting in the room, was the care paid to the texture and shading of the horse’s teeth, and then the paint being allowed to run. This juxtaposition of painterly verisimilitude and deliberate carelessness creates a rupture: a small piece of artistic violence as a focus for the horror depicted throughout the canvas.

Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child (Prado)
Bernard van Orley, Mary and Child, 1515-1520. Museo del Prado

On this latest visit to Madrid, my gallery destination was, naturally, the Prado. With just a few hours, it is only possible to see a small fraction, hence it became a trip through the greatest hits, taking in Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Brueghel, The Triumph of Death, and whole rooms of Velázquez. I somehow managed to miss Titian entirely. These days I don’t get out much, and I could tell I was missing my family because some of the paintings moved me terribly: Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child, in which the Christ child tugs on a red rosary, symbolising his eventual crucifixion; the geographical scale and quotidian detail of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt credited to a follower of Joachim Patinir, which recalls the Shield of Achilles in scope; the small exhibition ‘Childhood unveiled: Images of children in Spanish Romantic art’ had some wonderfully, delightfully expressive young faces, especially the gentle care in Joaquín Espalter y Rull’s Manuel y Matilde Álvarez Amorós, and the playfulness of Carlos Luis de Ribera y Fieve’s Retrato de niña en un paisaje. But it was Velázquez’s The Coronation of the Virgin which made me shudder. For some reason, the paintings in the Prado made me particularly sensitive to the human emotion of the Christ narrative. Well, the title of the conference was Myth and Emotions, and here I was, profoundly affected by the great numinous tale of the common era. Happy Easter.

Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin (Prado)
Diego Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin, 1635-1636. Museo del Prado