Tag Archives: liminal

Eels for Druids

I have no idea why eels don’t come up a lot more as powerful magical beings in modern Pagan traditions. They aren’t as common as they used to be, but we cope with the mammals on those terms. The UK Druid scene is abundant with the idea of wolves, but not eels.

Eels are beings of mystery. We still don’t properly understand them. They go away to breed, their tiny elvers swim back to us. The bounty of elvers in the rivers must have been a really important food source for many of our ancestors. I have wondered about the mysteriously absent and returning Mabon at Gloucester, on The Severn in terms of elvers.

Eels can live in the sea and in fresh water and can get out of the water to move about on land at night and in damp conditions. They are creatures of many worlds. They are creatures of the margins, of ditches and damp places, hidden waterways and secret paths through the landscape and the night. I have been enchanted by them for a long time.

Eels are really important food for otters. Eels have a lot of oil in them, and our ancestors ate them as well. They are richness embodied. They don’t exist to be eaten – no creature does – but humans and other creatures experience eels as incredible bounty. When elvers come up the rivers they used to do so in great numbers, again, embodying bounty from a human perspective.

They have a curious reputation for ugliness and creepiness. I don’t really get how this works, but there we go. Human aren’t good at night dwelling liminal creatures. We aren’t good at things that aren’t mammals and we are troubled by slimy bodies.

I have seen wild eels on a few occasions. Distressingly for me, my first wild eel was dangling from a fisherman’s hook alongside the canal. I have seen small ones swimming in the water. They make me intensely happy and I watch for them wherever there is water.


Wave, wind and wonder

Low tide, and the beach a sheen of shallow water catching the sun. Hard to tell what is sea, and what is shine. Oystercatchers along the margins, foraging. The haunting call of curlews against a backdrop of sea roar. No human sounds discernible above the pounding of waves and the rush of wind in ears. There is no time here, only space.

And for a while, I am just wind on skin and light on water. I am the moment when sun fills the wing feathers of an egret turning white feathers into numinous glory. I am the careful tread of boots on sand made sculpture by the retreating tide. I am the touch of cold that is sea on leather and the scent of salt in my nostrils. I am not myself. I am not anyone. I dissolve away into nothingness in this expanse of deliriously inhuman space.

I want to stay here forever.

I know that this marginal, tide turning land is not a place for me. I cannot live here. And still, I want to be light and water and wind and nothing more. I want to be lost, and ephemeral enough to be part of this place.

I am so tired of what humans do to each other.

I am so tired of trying to see the good and so tired of having to forgive what was never good enough and so tired of not being heard when I do dare to ask and so tired of having my heart broken.

A part of me is on the sand, between the water and the sky, between the sea and the shore, determined to stay lost. There are not many people I could stand here with, silent and scoured and salted. There are not many people I know how to be a person with, and far fewer I know how not to be a person with, and those, are certainly the best.

Liminal encounters

Edges are places of magic. The point where one thing stops and another begins, or the place of uncertainty that is neither quite one thing nor the other. Shores and wetlands are physical exemplars of the idea. The clear edge of where one body meets another, and the liminal emotionality of that meeting.

To be able to find the edges and liminal places, we have to be able to clearly recognise that one thing is distinct and separate from another, even if they blur when they meet. We must know the land and the sea to be able to see the luminal quality of the shore.

The need to divide and label seems to be a key part of how humans make sense of the world. We break things down into subcategories and ever finer delineations. It’s not enough to be a Druid. Reconstruction or romantic? Urban or feral? Contemplative or ritualistic? As though these are all firm boundaries and a Druid is a specific thing, a member of a discreet subcategory. In practice I find that the kind of Druid I am depends a lot on factors like where I am, who I’m with, what’s expected of me, the weather and my mood at the time.

If someone asks me to write a polytheistic poem for them, I will find the means within myself to do that. In the same week someone else could just as easily take some of my essays to put in a humanist/atheist collection (this has happened). I find it hard to wear any belief orientated labels. There are days when the language of deity makes sense to me, and days when it doesn’t. There are days when wearing a warm waterproof coat makes sense to me and days when it doesn’t, and I don’t think that comparison is unfair.

The sea is always itself, but the sea on a gentle summer’s day is not the same as the sea beset by a winter storm. The land is always the land, but in a mild growing season it looks and feels very different to how it is when gripped by slippery ice. Nothing exists in isolation. Nothing is entirely separate from the whole, yet all things are most easily understood when considered in terms of what makes them separate.

The same and not the same. Connected and separate. One great unity, distinct entities. There’s a paradox here that is essential and intrinsic to everything. I am not water, and yet without water, I would be nothing. A dry dust on the wind and no more. To know something is to go beyond what seems fixed and certain. To know the land in all seasons and all weathers, to know it wet, and frozen solid, to know it putting forth life, and decaying away. In the reconciliation of apparent opposites, there is often a new kind of truth.

“Know thyself”.  What is fixed and what is transient, what is of the season and of this week’s weather. Sometimes we need to define a thing to see where its edges are, and sometimes it is the experience of edges rubbing together that tells us about the limits. Skin again skin. Sea against shore.

Liminal Nature

In terms of wild places, the margins are where there is most action. The liminal places, neither one thing nor another, see the greatest diversity of life when compared to what’s around them. It’s the bit of sand and rock that is sometimes sea bed that has the most life on a beach. Edges of woodland see the most insect life. One of the reasons hedges are so good for wildlife is that they are all edge.

Locally, I have the tidal Severn River. At low tide, a vast, shining expanse of wet mud emerges from beneath the river, attracting flocks of wild birds to feed. This landscape in the UK used to be a lot more marshy – drained for agriculture, it is a lot more fixed and predictable than it was. Marshes are perhaps the ultimate liminal spaces – shifting worlds of not quite water, not quite land, fluctuating with rainfall and seasons, sometimes drying into stability for a while, sometimes becoming entirely aquatic. Wetland creatures have to be flexible. Anything liminal is subject to change, to becoming one thing or the other temporarily, permanently.

Harvest mice, which we associate with grain fields, are actually creatures of the wetland. The little nest balls they weave in the corn were originally made in reeds, keeping them safely above the shifting water levels. A heroic adaptation to a shifting landscape, that.

As a species we’ve worked hard to take out the liminal, make things firmly one or another. Collectively, we favour straight, tidy, clear cut edges. It’s an exercise in sterility. It’s in the chaos that the most interesting things happen.