Under the Skin of the World: on myth and magic
The magic of art

In the Story Made of Dawn: on magic and magicians

Nattadon Hill

In his fine book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses how being a sleight-of-hand magician gave him an entrée into the world of traditional healers and shamans:

"I traveled to Indonesia on a research grant to study magic," he writes; "more precisely, to study the relation between magic and medicine, first among the traditional sorcerers, or dukuns, of the Indonesian archipelago, and later among the djankris, the traditional shamans of Nepal. The grant had one unique aspect: I was to journey into rural Asia not outwardly as an anthropologist or academic researcher, but as an itinerant magician in my own right, in hopes of gaining a more direct access to the local sorcerers. I had been a professional sleight-of-hand magician for five years, helping to put myself through college by performing in clubs and restaurants throughout New England. I had, as well, taken a year off from my studies in the psychology of perception to travel as a street magician through Europe and, toward the end of that journey, had spent some months in London, working with R. D. Laing and his associates, exploring the potential of using sleight-of-hand magic in psycho-therapy as a means of engendering communication with distressed individuals largely unapproachable by clinical healers. As a result of this work I became interested in the relation, largely forgotten in the West, between folk medicine and magic.

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"This interest eventually led to the aforementioned grant, and to my sojourn as a magician in rural Asia. There, my sleight-of-hand skills proved invaluable as a means of stirring the curiosity of the local shamans. Magicians, whether modern entertainers or indigenous, tribal sorcerers, work with the malleable texture of perception. When the local sorcerers gleaned that I had at least some rudimentary skill in altering the common field of perception, I was invited into their homes, asked to share secrets with them, and eventually encouraged, even urged, to participate in various rituals and ceremonies.

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"But the focus of my research gradually shifted from a concern with the application of magical techniques in medicine and ritual curing, toward a deeper pondering of the traditional relation between magic and the natural world."

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Scott London goes deeper into this aspect of  David's work in the following passages from his illuminating intervew, "The Ecology of Magic":

London: You have used the phrase "boundary keeper" to describe the magician. What do you mean by that?

Abram: I discovered that very few of the medicine people that I met considered their work as healers to be their primary role or function for their communities. So even though they were the healers, or the medicine people, for their villages, they saw their ability to heal as a by-product of their more primary work. This more primary work had to do with the fact that these magicians rarely live at the middle of their communities or in the heart of the village. They always live out at the edge or just outside of the village -- out among the rice paddies or in a cluster of wild boulders -- because their skills are not encompassed within the human modality. They are, as it were, the intermediaries between the human community and the more-than-human community -- the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests are considered to be living, intelligent forces. Even the winds and the weather patterns are seen as living beings. Everything is animate. Everything moves. It's just that some things move slower than other things, like the mountains or the ground itself. But everything has its movement, has its life. And the magicians were precisely those individuals who were most susceptible to the solicitations of these other-than-human shapes. It was the magicians who could most easily enter into some kind of rapport with another being, like an oak tree, or with a frog.

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London: What sort of rapport?

Abram: Every magician that I met had a number of animals or plants or forms of nature that were their close familiars. Just as we speak of the witch's black cat as her "familiar," so in these animistic societies the magician might have crows and frogs and perhaps a certain kind of rubber plant as his familiars. It might also be a certain kind of storm -- a thunder-storm -- a being that, when it appeared in the sky, would tell the magician that it was time to go outside and just gaze at those clouds and learn from them what they might have to teach.

London: In the same way, perhaps, that horses can sense an impending earthquake.

Abram: Right. Other animals function for the magician as another set of senses, another angle from which he can see and hear and sense what's going on in the surrounding ecology, because we are limited by our human senses, our nervous-system, and our two arms and our two legs. Birds know so much more about what's going on in the air, in the invisible winds, than we humans can know. If we watch the birds closely, we can begin to learn about what's going on in the sky and in the air simply by watching their flight patterns.

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London: Where do they draw the boundary between magic and reality?

Abram: That boundary is not drawn in traditional cultures. In indigenous, tribal, or oral cultures, magic is the way of the world. There is nothing that is not in some way magic, because the fact that the world exists is already quite a wonder. That it stays existing, that it continually keeps holding itself in existence, this is the mystery of mysteries. Magic is the way of the world. It's that sense of being in contact with so many other shapes of awareness, most of which are so different from our own, that is the basic experience of magic from which all other forms of magic derive.

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London: What happens to a culture bereft of magic?

Abram: One thing is that its relation to the natural landscape is tremendously impoverished. In fact, by our obliviousness, by our forgetfulness of all of these other styles of awareness -- the other animals, the plants, the waters -- we have brought about a crisis in the natural world of unprecedented proportions -- not out of any meanness, but simply because we really don't recognize that nature is there. It seems to us, in our culture, to be a kind of passive backdrop against which all of our human events unfold, and it's human events that are meaningful and what happens in nature, well, we don't really notice it, it's not really there. It's not vital. How different that is from the awareness of a magical or animistic culture for whom everything we do as humans is so profoundly influenced by our interactions with the earth underfoot and the air that swirls around us and the other animals.

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London: You said that some field biologists are able to capture the essence of magic in their work. I can think of some nature writers who also serve that same function -- people like Peter Mathiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, and Barry Lopez.

Abram: Absolutely. I do think that some of the nature writers are doing an exquisitely important work of magic. They are doing what we might think of as "word magic" -- very carefully taking up the language and trying to use it in new ways, trying to work out how to speak without violating our kinship with the rest of the animate earth.

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I agree with David on this, but I would add that there are mythic fiction writers who are doing the important work of "word magic" too.

Books by David Abram. Tilly approves.I recommend reading Scott London's interview in full, and I also highly recommend David's two books if you haven't come across them already: The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal. Photographs above: climbing the hills at dawn in golden post-rain light.


"these magicians rarely live at the middle of their communities or in the heart of the village. They always live out at the edge or just outside of the village — out among the rice paddies or in a cluster of wild boulders — because their skills are not encompassed within the human modality"

I love this essential touchstone.

Much food for thought here - thank you, Terri.

Somewhere in my early thirties I began to be aware that I felt compelled to make the environment that surrounded the stories and characters that I was drawing not a mere backdrop for any action but a vital, active part of their story. At about the same time I discovered the writing of a group of Scottish Nationalist writers working in the 1930s (primarily Neil Gunn but also Naomi Mitchison, Eric Linklater, etc.) who evoked that same feeling in all of their work. Realizing this was deeply satisfying and has permeated all my work ever since. If the earth you walk on doesn't speak to you its because you aren't listening.

In the Story Made of Dawn

"In the story made of dawn. . ."
from a Dine (Navajo) Medicine Chant

Here, on the rock,
the Story Made of Dawn
touches first.

Light pours down,
a rain of it,
as if sky weeps.

Here in the grass,
the Story Made of Dawn
touches next.

It braids light
through each startled blade,
linking them for morning.

Here in the earth,
the Story Made of Dawn
touches last,

soaking into hungry ground,
giving bright life,
if only for the moment.

I touch rock, grass, earth.
Light covers me,uncovers me,
starting with my hands.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

My favorite Abram quote: "We are all animists."
I learned so much from him.

The pictures today are just wonderful, particularly the ones from on high, Tilly looking down on the valley below. She is a very very lucky dog to have such a back yard to romp in.

And I think it's time for me to finally read David Abram.

This is real magic, Jane. I truly love it.

It's really difficult starting with a line from a Dine prayer. Not wanting to offend, not wanting to just say what was already said so beautifully. Thanks, Chris.

There is much that makes me say "HMMMM" at myself about this post - thank you, it must have hit me on just the right day.

Coincidence? I have just begun "Reading the Fire," which I've had for a while. It's Central Oregon poet, scholar lJarold Ramsey's collection of Indian Literatures of the Far West. The Coyote, Raven and others are there, in the words left behind from many sources. I have never felt so close to the invisible magic I sensed in Oregon and Idaho, as if forest, desert, lizards on rocks, the presence and silence of deer, porcupines, and the song of the meadowlark had hidden stories. I've read other books about this, but this is the first one that is so close to my heart.

I'm enchanted!
Thanks for so food for the soul and the intelect! The texts made me remind Carlos Castañeda's books, that had a important role in my life.


P.S. Beautiful pictures, a place really proper for a fairy tail.
My place, in south Brasil, had a european colonization, predominantly Germanic, Italian and portuguese, so we've heard a lot of the european folktales that blended with the indigenous lore contributed to form our imaginary.
Tilly is so sweet, I love see her!

That's one of the many reasons I respond to your beautiful work so strongly, Charles.

I've made a copy of this one to read to Tilly on the hill during our walk at dawn. Perfect.

I've haven't read it, Phyllis. It sounds good and I'll seek it out.

Brazil has a wonderfully rich folklore tradition. I would love to go there someday -- as would my husband, who speaks Portuguese (though he's used to the way it is spoken in Portugal).

Yes, she is very lucky, and so are we, to live in a place with so many woods and fields and footpaths. And I love having the kind of job where she can come to work with me each day. She's very good about sitting quietly while I work, watching the world out of the big studio windows. She doesn't really have a preference for me over Howard, but she does prefer my studio to his because of those windows!

Terri, what is that beautifully russet-colored plant on either side of the path? Is it some type of bracken? Living out here on the flatlands of Tx, I don't have much of a grasp of your local flora. I'm enchanted by the color. Such a gorgeously rich russet.

It is indeed bracken. Green and ferny in the summer, in the winter it dries up and changes color with the shifting light: sometimes a dull brown, sometimes a brighter gold, sometimes rust or russet with a distinct orange undertone (in the morning sun when it's still wet with recent rain), and on some bleak days a kind of purple-magenta shade. It's amazing how much it varies from day to day, or even hour to hour.

Sometimes I look through my camera and think my camera's color settings must be off because the colors seem too odd or vivid -- and then I take another look around me and realize, no, it really *does* look like that today. With so much recent rain, the hill has been looking particularly yellow and russet lately.

You and your family will go to be very wellcome here!

Terri, these photos are extraordinary. I particularly love the first and eighth. I don't know why Tilly's presence makes such a difference in your pictures. I love so many of them, but the ones with Tilly sing out to me! This wonderful post makes me consider the difference between being busy and being aimless and quiet in the natural world. There's always something to do - weeds to pull, toys to pick up, calls to be made. My children are always asking me, "Mama, what are we gonna do now?" Sometimes I don't want to do. I want to look and listen. I wonder how to teach them this, but I know it might be something they need to learn themselves, through story, exposure, and experience. In the meantime, I let them know when I'd like to be still for a while and I try to model appreciation of the world around us.

i read and loved the spell of the sensuous, may be time to re-read. this week over here on the moor has been so rich for me, thank you.

I think of Tilly as the mythic Animal Guide into the landscape. Without her, I think these pictures would be static; they'd simply be images of the place I live, with little relevance to anyone else. But the addition of an Animal Guide turns the landscape from a particular place into a mythic space. She beckons readers to step into the picture and follow her. (Or else she's a four-footed stand-in for readers themselves.) That's how it seems to me, anyway -- and Tilly is very obliging in being photographed, almost as if she knows about and relishes her role. :)

I love what you have to say about "the difference between being busy and being aimless and quiet in the natural world," and the challenge (in our fast-paced modern life) of teaching this kind of patient ability to be quietly absorbed to children. In my 1960s/70s childhood, where we were sent outdoors unsupervised for many hours at a stretch (without phones or tablets or any other screens to distract us), we learned this naturally, since it was basically the only alternative to boredom. I remember long days when kids in the various neighborhoods where I lived went inside only for meals, and the adults didn't know and didn't worry about where we were the rest of the time --- a kind of freedom that few children seem to have now. Today, when kids are so rarely left alone, it must be much more challenging to help them learn how to be self-reliant in this regard.

Andrew Smart has published a book with the intriguing title "Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing," which I keep meaning to track down. This brief piece on it by Shane Parrish makes it sound interesting:


You're welcome!

Yes, Tilly does seem to beckon us there! What a sweet face she has, so expressive. Thank you for your thoughts on idleness and for this fascinating link. I do wonder how urban density and parental paranoia detracts from a child's ability to be alone with nature. I often wish we lived in a more wild or remote place, but I understand there are trade offs. We're taking the ferry to Bainbridge island this weekend to visit friends who live on a rather large forested lot. It will be fun to see the kids run free, even if just for a little while (& if the weather permits!).

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