Rivers, Stars & Snakes

« The Daughter of Ivor shall come from the mound »

I make haste to where the river passes outside the city – a semi-wild patch of land circled by tangled bushes, hawthorns and briars, brambles and thorns of all sorts. A field of in-betweenness, a liminal place standing at the border of civilization and wilderness. One of my power places. It has been calling to me. There is my hawthorn tree, hidden to the outside gazes, unremarkable to most but me, a special tree singled out not for its beauty or power but for its tutelage. The tree under which I made my sacrifice, who gave me hospitality, and to which I tie a lock of red hair each time I come visit – this is the rule. Sometimes, all you really need to do is go to the land and wait there and listen. This time, I bring with me, in a cloth bag, a single bottle of red wine.

I come in the open moor, looking forward to this reunion – but something immediately feels off. Not the occasional walker, nor their dogs running freely (I am scared of most dogs, having been molested by a farm one as a young child : impacted trust is hard to heal). My presence, that day, feels wrong, out of place, and I am vaguely uncomfortable. The space itself feels closeted, suffocated – hurt. Backing away as if to protect itself from intrusion, the grove of trees issues a low growl; like a warning cry. I take a look at the hedge. We are well advanced in the summer – that nature should outgrow the neat boundaries the council tries to assign it to keep the riverbanks clean should not surprise me. But these are walls. Walls of thorny blackberry, thistles, and stinging nettles, of convoluted branches, of contrived display of crisscrossing leaves, sticks, and trunks. Puzzled at first, for the usual path is unrecognizable into this overgrowth, I think I may have passed by my usual retreat without seeing it – it would have been odd, sure, but here was a plausible explanation. Yet the answer dawns on me : the door is closed. Something is trying to safeguard itself, and it will not let me in. Something feral and wounded, resentfully preserving itself, just a little too late.

I persist. I know the place. I have friends here. Carefully moving branches away to progress, avoiding the prickling of fingers the best I can, I penetrate the hedge and this is then I understand.

The riverbank is all littered with trash. Human junk that, by the look of it, has sat here for weeks – cans, beer bottles, plastic bags, crisps, broken fishing lines – even, supreme insult, men pants, covered in shit. The filth of that pure blasphemy tightens my throat as cold, distant rage comes over me. I have a moment of hesitation, the shadow of helplessness, before I drop all of my stupid belongings and start picking everything up. Muttering apologies, I am rendered clumsy with shame – for I am of that same race that caused the offense, the race which so often acts like everything belongs to it. Humans are, at times, fundamentally entitled, and thus fundamentally profane creatures. There is no mistaking that feeling of being watched : there is only one way to make it right, and I am to do it. As it turns out, the bottle of wine I was told to bring by my spirits was not to cheer and commune, but for me to wash my hands after the deed, after the manipulation and handling of so much crap – and to rinse my palms lightly in the river.

« A portion of it, to the Land. »

« A portion of it, to the Pale People Below. »

When it is all over, the cry of relief the place lets out is palpable. Despite everything, neither the brambles nor the nettles touched me. Sweat trickles at my temples. Under my fingers, the dirt reveals the pale blue shell of a delicate blackbird egg. I sit by the river, trying to cool down and relax a bit. My gaze wanders vacantly in the direction of the sun, to the water now almost stagnant. It is a fairly hot day. The golden light of a lazy afternoon starts to set. I doze off, closing my eyes – when I seem to catch a glimpse of something beautiful and dangerous, some strange coil of shadow and light, moving fast and approaching. A sharp instinct sends tendrils to my core, and the next second I bolt awake, turning my eyes to see it – the triangular head piercing the surface, the long, thin body undulating calmly in the darkness beneath.

There came, swimming gracefully towards me, a young viper.

« I will not molest the serpent / Nor will the serpent molest me »

The Star‘, a card from The Alchemical Tarot by Robert M. Place

Snakes and serpents occupy, quite rightfully so, a central importance in my practice. The spark of the anvil, discussed in a previous article, is also the lifeblood of the serpent. Coiling within, without, the serpent in my own personal mythology has dominion over life and death, over sacred, occult and hidden knowledge, over poison, rebirth, and transformation. A creature of fire and water, it is chtonic in nature, moving from one realm to the other. I see its under/otherworldly power and attributes in the constellation commonly known as Ophiuchus, known to me as Cernunnos’s Serpent. I see its healing qualities in the Dragon – the Gaulish goddess Đirona’s companion, clutching its starry eggs in the night sky. Why is it that I always seem to circle back to the snake as a potent symbol for the craft that is mine ? Why is it that I gravitate towards snake-bearing gods and goddesses or ophidian fairy queens ?

I learnt that the viper I saw this day was an adder. Adders are the sole venomous snakes of the UK. Their rarity is, in that regard, indisputable. According to the experts, to catch a glimpse of one is unique enough as is, but to see one swimming is practically unheard of. As most European snakes, they are reserved creatures who typically don’t attack unless directly threatened, preferring to glide away silently. Adders, as the only poisonous snakes of Britain, are evidently equipped with a wealth of folklore – from the mysterious adder-stones of curative properties, also known as fairy stones or hag stones, to the beheaded vipers said to continue to live after the severance occurred, retaining enough venom to bite one last time.

The serpent mirrors, fragments, and contains dualities. As a key, it is a very powerful symbol that unlocks those underworld thresholds, and allows free passage. It delights in both light and darkness. It can raise and it can lay to rest. Its forces are monstrous until kept in balance, when they become beneficial and healthy.

In the cards, I read the cipher of the adder’s body, the proximity of this encounter next to the other staple of my practice, the Hawthorn tree (a Fairy Tree marking the boundary between our world and Theirs). The Ace of Cups fell rightly in its home position, to the West, highlighting the primordial sources of Water – and thus confirming the importance of the encounter, which happened just as I was stepping into my power as a folk healer. Towering over it is the Queen of Swords – my personal significator -, reclining on a throne, holding the decapitated head of a man in her hand. As an Aquarian figure of mercurial and saturnian energies, she embodies qualities of both planets, as well as epitomizing other personal symbols – mysteries of headlessness are familiar to me, in the transformation of the soul, cutting like a knife, in shamanistic trances and the loss of ego.

I cultivate a budding relationship with an old god of pre-Christian origin, a Saturnian king sitting on a throne made of piles of headless corpses, who sent one of His children after me, bearing His name. He is known as the Dark Crooked One, and His golden idol, in the shape of a severed head, was worshipped in the landscape of Magh Slecht, Co. Cavan. As above, so below – the Sun, riding Orion as both the Hunter and the Hunted, is the lost head of the god – and in my natal chart, it sets in the horizon, dying as the day dies, assisted in its own burial by Saturn the wise teacher instructing Mercury the magician, about to start the process of transition from life to death. The blood-waters resulting from the severance of the Sun/soul/head/breath are flowing out and taking the form of a river. At the boundary of the wound or threshold of the self is a guardian, as always – one that has the capacity to travel from one side of the river to the other, always at its station, yet still in constant motion. For if Mercury is the hand that performs the cutting ritual at the grave which raises and loosens the soul from the body (one of the mysteries headlessness taught me), escorting the soul in good psychopomp fashion to the riverbank to meet the ferryman (Fairy Man ?), it also allows it to board his vessel to continue the journey into the under/otherworld proper, where the soul will transform.

Hills are hollows indeed.

My headless « ferryman » was terrifying – still is. The knowledge lies in how to cross, or how to open, the under/otherworld thresholds, how to call back the breath and insuflate life, how to meet the guardians and give them proper offerings to befriend them and be taught, or assisted, in performing the ritual in death as well as in life – to know the journey. The river is a wonderful boundary image because it by nature separates two banks of land while also being the common point between them. And what does a river do, pointed an astrologer friend out to me, as we were pondering the significance of symbols upon symbols – if not snaking its way into the terrain ?

Most underworld and hypercosmic rivers, he added, have snake imagery (as all chtonic things often do), and the world-encircling river also being a serpent eating its own tail does not seem too far a stretch. The outpouring of primal blood / water is commonly found in traditional libations to the dead to create a watery boundary of sorcerous capacity. We talked about how to serve monsters, with yet another beheaded mythological figure, Medusa – a serpentine being said to have been birthed near the springs of Oceanus, and cursed after mating with the sea-god of primal waters, all rivers coming back to the sea. Her blood reflects the ambivalence of the snake in its chtonic and healing properties – depending on how it was harvested, it had different uses : taken from the right side, it was said to cure all poisons, taken from the left, it caused all manners of blights, being itself the most baleful poison. Two serpent-rivers from the severance uttering a secret caduceus, in the eye of Algol, and the loss of ego, and the wild trance ecstasies thereof. Medusa and the Gorgons have immense meaning in a variety of ways, but specifically, their blood is mentioned time and time again as a powerful talisman and materia magica. The concept of the outpouring of blood / water as a ritual offering to mirror the outpouring of life and soul essences, creates in itself a river of meaning that flows, and echoes all other rivers. Those rituals are the powers of Saturn, feeding into the story of the Sun’s (soul, head, ego) death. I owe to this astrologer friend, who once scried the toothy grin of fairies in my natal chart, this precious understanding that Aquarius is the very river boundary that separates the mountains of Capricorn from the seas of Pisces. That every crossing river is a liminality, yet each river feeds into the endless (hyper)cosmic river that surrounds and separates all things. That they all have a common point, but that there is never a true source because the source is all encompassing, lakes and bogs and ponds and seas and ice; even down to the moisture of our atmosphere. Big rivers have nameless branches and unknown pools, but ultimately all rivers, all water, returns to the greater river, or even the endless sea of the under/otherworld – a continuous, yet fixed cycle of water going through the various transitions of its own life cycle, just as the serpent does shedding its skin.

As for the Headless God hidden in the landscape, his blood the sacrificed rivers that flow, we will talk about him – just not today, not quite.

3 thoughts on “Rivers, Stars & Snakes

  1. Pingback: Ivy: Snake and Namesake – Upon the Altar

  2. Pingback: ‘These stars to whom none gave their due’ : Fairy and astrolatry | Hollow Hills

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