Speaking with animals

East of the Sun  West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

Seven Little Tales

Seven Little Tales

Seven Little Tales

Brother and Sister by Edmund Dulac

"A Spell for Speaking With Animals" is one of seven little pieces of mine published in Seven Little Tales (Hedgespoken Press, 2018). For a look at the folklore behind the poem, see: "The Speech of Animals."

For general animal folklore, go here. For tales on marriage between animals and humans, go here. Or follow these links for rabbits and hares, wolves, pigs, foxes, cats, sheep, goats, bears, swans & cranes and other birds in folklore, myth, and mythic fiction.

The Lady and the Lion by Arthur Rackham

Seven Little Tales

Poor Little Bear by John Bauer

The art today is by four artists from the Golden Age of Book Illustration: East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (Danish, 1886-1957), Brother and Sister by Edmund Dulac (French/British, 1882-1953), The Lady and the Lion by Arthur Rackham (British, 1867-1939), and Poor Little Bear by John Bauer (Swedish, 1882-1918). 


Ordinary magic

Tales from Earthsea illustrated by Charles Vess

Following yesterday's post on magic and magicians, here's a passage from David Abram's second book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. In this section of the text, he discusses a long journey through the Himalayas meeting with indigenous medicine workers and shamanic practioners -- sharing his own techniques of sleight-of-hand magic while listening, observing, and attuning himself to the local landscape:

Tehanu illustrated by Charles Vess 6"In the course of these first months in the Himalayas I came into contact with several jhankris of very diverse skill, and I lived for several weeks with two of them, a husband and wife who were both highly regarded as healers....The strangest thing about my time with Sonam and his wife, Jangmu, was how deeply I came home to myself during those days and nights. Rather than sampling alien practices and exploring beliefs entirely new to me, it was a quality of my own felt experience that became ever more fascinating, the carnal thickness underlying even my most ephemeral daydreams. From that first evening in their house, I found myself noticing ordinary, physical sensations much more vividly than I had realized was possible....Their home, with its stone walls, had a palpable density that hunkered close as I slept on the mud-caked floor across from Sonam and Jangmu, and when I woke in the morning I seemed to emerge from my private dreams into the wider dreaming of this breathing house nested within the broad imagination of the bouldered hillside.

"My hosts were already at work, whether feeding their few animals or hauling water back from the stream or consulting the spirits regarding the faltering crops of potatoes in a nearby village. Later I would be carrying fallen deadwood gathered from a stand of trees by the far below river, walking up the switchback trail behind Jangmu -- she seeming to float up the steep trail in her bare feet while her back was bent forward, its huge load slung from a single rope tumpline around her forehead, me straining and staggering in my hiking boots with a far smaller stash of fuel under my arms. I remember how completely those walks annihilated any separation of my conscious thoughts from my aching shoulders and my hammering heartbeat and the step and tumble of my legs.

The Books of Earthsea illustrated by Charles Vess

"And herein was the strangeness: the more my consciousness sank into the muscled thickness of my animal flesh, the more I could feel the tangible earth around me swell and breathe and move within itself -- trees, riverbanks, and boulders quietly responding to all the happenings in their vicinity. It seemed the ground itself felt my footsteps and nudged my feet in the most serendipitous directions, ensuring that I'd come across some unexpected event at just the right moment -- that I'd encounter a hawk just as it swerved into a tree to feed its nestlings, or that I'd step into the precise spot to glimpse, through a momentary opening in the monsoon clouds, two mountain goats coupling on the high ridge.  As though by dissolving my detached cognitions into the sensory curiosity of my body I had slipped into alignment with the sentience of the land itself. Awakening as this upright, wide-eyed, smooth-skinned thing, I noticed that all the other things around me were also awake.

Tehanu illustrated by Charles Vess

Tales from Earthsea illustrated by Charles Vess

"It was as profound an experience of magic as any I'd yet tasted, and yet it was entirely ordinary. There was nothing extraordinary about it, not in the least. It was not the encounter with a supernatural dimension that unfurls somewhere beyond my everyday, into which I might elevate myself now and then, but with a dimension always operative beneath my conventional consciousness, a carnal realm where my animal body was engaged in this ongoing interplay with the animate earth.

"Hence I began to feel far more palpably present, and real, to the rocks and shadowed cliffs than I'd felt before. I felt that I was known to these mountains now. This experience -- this awareness of my elemental, thingly presence to the tangible things that surrounded me -- has remained, for me, the purest hallmark of magic, the very signature of its uttermost reality. Magic doesn't sweep you away; it gathers you up into the body of the present moment so thoroughly that all your explanations fall away: the ordinary, in all its plain and simple outrageousness, begins to shine -- to become luminously, impossibly so. Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it.

"The deeper I slid into the material density of the real, the more I found that there was nothing determinate or predictable about existence. Actually, this inexhaustable mystery cannot be domesticated. It is wildness incarnate. Reality shapeshifts."

I highly recommend David Abram's books to those writers and storytellers seeking to invest their words, worlds, and characters with enchantment. He reminds us that magic is all around us in the world that we walk every day.

The Other Wind illustrated by Charles Vess

The Books of Earthsea

The art day is by Charles Vess, drawn from the magnificent body of work he created for The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Charles worked closely with Ursula over four years to create fifty-four illustrations faithful to her vision of the Earthsea archipelago and its denizens -- from wizards and dragons to farmers, sailors, temple-dwellers and kings. The result is a masterwork of mythic fiction and art, a perfect embodiment of word magic.

"I’d pretty much reconciled myself to drawing what she was looking at in her brain," Charles says. "I had no problem with that. She’s particularly brilliant. I really wanted to let her see the world that was in her mind....She envisioned Earthsea as a world mostly comprised of people of colour. It wasn’t just black people, but also Mediterranean or Native American people. All sorts of shades of brown. No one ever put that on a cover. She’d had a lot of fights about that. So, this was an opportunity to gird for battle -- to make the book look the way she’d always envisioned it."

Go here to learn more about the project, here to see some of the sketches made for it, and here to see more Charles' exquisite, unique, and visionary art.

Tales of Earthsea endpaper by Charles Vess

Becoming Animal by David Abram

Words & pictures: The passage quoted above is from Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (Pantheon, 2010). The Charles Vess illustrations are from The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Simon & Schuster, 20  ). All rights reserved by the author and artist.


Word magic

Pony 9

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:

Drawing by Arthur Rackham"I traveled to Indonesia on a research grant to study magic; 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.

Pony 2

"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.

"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."

Pony 5

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.

Pony 1b

Pony 1

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.

Pony 3

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.

Pony 7

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.

Pony 6

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.

Nattadon gate 3

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.

Drawing by Arthur Rackham

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

Books by David Abram. Tilly approves.

Words: The first passage quoted above is from The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage, 1997). Scott London's interview appears on London's website here, adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." All rights reserved by Abram and London.  I highly recommend David's two books, pictured above, if you haven't read them already. Both have been influential texts for me over the years.

Pictures: The two ink drawings are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs capture a Dartmoor pony encounter that Tilly and I had earlier this spring. We sat together on old stone wall watching them drift by, one by one. The last pony stopped in front of us, resting her head on my outstretched hand; then she turned and followed the others up the hill. It felt like a blessing.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Notebook sketch by Jackie Morrie

As many of you know, I spent much of 2018 - 2019 happily immersed in the Modern Fairies project, an arts and research initiative which brought folk musicians, artists, writers, folklorists and filmmakers together to create works exploring what Britian's folklore tradition means to us in the modern world. After twelve months of research and collaboration, the project ended with a concert and multi-media presentation at the Sage Theatre in Gateshead/Newcastle (Spring 2019), but my MF colleagues are continuing to develop this material in a number of interesting ways -- the most recent of which is Wrackline, a gorgeous, deeply magical new album by the distinguished folksinger, songwriter, and music scholar Fay Hield. (It comes out in September, but is available for pre-orders now.)

Moonstruck hare by Jackie MorrisIn the run-up to Wrackline's release next month, Fay is publishing posts highlighting the album's six folklore themes -- beginning with tales of witches (and other women) who cast themselves into the shapes of hares.

Above: A short video in which Fay introduces the concept of the new album.

Below: "Hare Spell," from Wrackline. As Fay explains:

"In exploring the mythical supernatural on the Modern Fairies project I became excited by the question of real magic and belief, and spent some time looking at magical acts themselves, rather than the stories about them. Inge Thomson and I chatted about the nature of spells and where the magic lay. Words are commonly seen to hold power, but as musicians, we wondered how we could draw this out through sound. We toyed with the relationship of music to language noticing that pitches are conveniently given letter names. That evening at the very first meeting of the Modern Fairies [at Oxford University, Summer 2018], we mused about how music could come out of the words themselves.

"I needed a spell, a real one that held magic. Jackie Morris gave me some words about a hare and a little digging showed that it comes from Isobel Gowdie, the wife of John Gilbert, likely a cottar in Auldearn, near Inverness. Isobel was tried in 1662 during the witchcraft trials and her confession gives a clear account, seemingly uncoerced, into her activities with the devil and visiting the king of the fairie. She includes several spells and chants used to conduct her own magic, including this spell to turn the utterer into a hare to do the devil’s work."

Photograph by Fay Hield

Below: "When She Comes," a second hare song which grew from a collaboration between Fay and poet Sarah Hesketh. Sarah writes:

"As I sat and listened to Fay transform her reading about Isobel Gowdie into song, I found myself really drawn into the story she was beginning to tell through the music. Here were two characters -- a woman and a hare -- with an incredibly strange and intimate relationship. Fay's song 'Hare Spell' was a glimpse into that relationship from Isobel's point of view; but what, I wondered, did the hare have to say about it all? How did he feel about having his body appropriated for her eldritch purposes? Was this a kind of hi-jacking or was there something more complex and consensual going on between the two of them? I wanted to explore the idea that the hare might be more than just a passive vessel for Isobel's adventures, and how it might feel for him to have to say goodbye as she decided to return to her own body."

The words are by Sarah and the music by Fay, with underlying chordal structures created by Ben Nicholls and Inge Thomson for Modern Fairies project, then further developed by Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron for Wrackline. This is the Modern Fairies version, recorded at The Sage performance in April 2019. It was one my favourite songs from the show, bringing a lump to my throat every time I heard Fay sing it. (Sarah's exquisite lyrics  are here.) 

Three hares by Jackie Morris

There are more shape-shifiting hares to come: Fay, Inge, Sarah and I are working with the good folks of the Alternative Stories podcast to create an audio drama on the subject; we'll let you when the broadcast date is set. And keep an eye on Fay's blog in the weeks ahead if you'd like to know more about the other songs on Wrackline (including one based on my poem "The Night Journey," which is an honour indeed).

Selkie art by Natalie Reid

Another thread of work that emerged from the Modern Fairies project was inspired by selkie (seal people) lore -- including songs created by Lucy Farrell, Inge Thompson, Barney Morse-Brown and Fay, presented in the final Modern Fairies show with art by Natalie Reid

In the Autumn 2019, four of us from the project (Lucy, Fay, Barney, and me) reunited to present The Secrets of the Selkies: an evening of song and story at the Being Human Festival in Sheffield. During the week leading to festival, as the others ordered and rehearsed their music, my job as a writer/editor was to weave poems and monologues between the songs to join them into a common narrative, examining classic "selkie bride" folk tales from several characters' point of view. I don't know what the evening was like from the audience, but from the stage it felt like pure magic ... ending with choral singing of the selkie's call by everyone in the hall. 

Above: A screen projection produced by Lucy -- with Natalie's art, Lucy's music, and selkie encounters described by Inge (who grew up on Fair Isle) and others.

Below: A little video by Tim James capturing a collage of moments from The Secrets of the Selkies.

The Secrets of the Selkies - me  Fay  Lucy  and Barney

Art above: Hares by Jackie Morris, and a selkie by Natalie Reid.  The photograph of Fay's banjo is by Elly Lucas. All rights to the music and art above reserved by the musicians and artists.

To read previous posts on the Modern Fairies project, go here.


Let's talk about magic

Devon autumn 1

My friend Briana Saussy has written a deeply enchanting book, Making Magic: Weaving Together the Everyday and the Extraordinary. It is, yes, about the art of making magic -- but if you're imagining something airy-fairy, this couldn't be more opposite. Bri (like me) believes that true magic is Illustration by Helen Strattonthreaded throughout our everyday lives and rooted in the ground below. It's a way of perceiving the world, not manipulating the world; of engaging with nature and the more-than-human realm, not of seeking power over it.

Making Magic is a guide to the earthy magic of hedgewitches and rootworkers; healers, mystics, and curanderas; medicine workers of differing traditions, all attuned to the natural world. Bri's writing, like her magical practice, is lucid, folkloric, and backed by years of scholarship; her suggestions for bringing the qualities of magic back into daily life are simple and down-to-earth.

This is a book that will easily be of interest to other readers of a pagan/animist bent -- but I also recommend Making Magic to writers of fantasy literature. Whether you're creating Imaginary World stories pulsing with enchantment, or Magical Realist tales with only the lightest of otherworldly shimmers, this guide to the lore, world view, and still-living practices of the natural magic tradition is a useful text. In my years as fantasy editor, I've read far too many manucripts in which magic is portrayed like a form of auto mechanics: entirely lacking in mystery or genuine connection to the living world. For a more numinous approach, we have only to look at the actual history of natural magic as it has evolved in cultures the world over...and is still quietly practiced in the West today, as this wise and lovely book makes clear.

Devon autumn 2

Devon autumn 3

"Now is the time to remember ourselves," writes Bri, "not just a little bit or piece by piece, but wholly and completely. Magic of leaf and root, hearth and home, needle and thread, candle and prayer, feather and fang. Magic that weaves all that is extraordinary back into right relationship to our everyday lives, bridging the ways that we have grown divided -- against ourselves and each other. Magic that heals and restores....

Devon autumn 4

"Magic is a wild animal. It is hawk and eagle, raven and owl, coyote and fox, wolf and wildcat, badger and bear. It shifts into all the shapes and forms in between. Magic has been hunted and harried, tortured and trapped. It has witnessed its kin killed and its natural habits destroyed. And like all wild creatures that find ways against the odds to survive, magic has grown careful and cautious, wise and wily. It is seen only in its glimpses -- a flash of eye, a swish of tail, a blur of motion -- and then we are left with only trees and shadows and stars. It cannot be pursued in the usual ways. It's not something you can buy with money, earn through good behavior, or attain through the heat of drama and risk. The wilderness in which this particular animal resides is not found in some faraway and exotic place. It is here, and absurdly, wildly, free.

Devon autumn 5

"For magic, like the wild itself, is not found in a place we go to. Rather, it resides in the places where we always are. Magic moves through the wilderness of the soul and is found in the soul soil of everyday life and experience. It is found in the doing of the laundry, the making of beds and grocery lists, catching up with friends, having babies, taking lovers, going to school, making money, commuting to work, buying clothes, and cooking dinner. Every single one of these acts has been marked up and down and all around with the paw prints of magic. Each seemingly banal activity bears magic's scent trails and claw marks.

Robin in autumn

"It is hard to see this at first and almost impossible to believe. All mysteries, so we have been told, have been discovered, named, bagged, and tagged. There is nothing unknown, nothing of wonder to find here, nothing to see. This conventional wisdom has been the greatest teacher in the present age, and it has taught us incorrectly. A world without wild things is greatly diminished, this we know. The same is true for lives lived without the touch of magic. In all places we look, magic is a mark carrying depth and scope, an essential ingredient for a life well lived.

Tilly listening

"Magic is present in our earliest civilizations in the form of a dazzling array of rituals, ceremonies, and holy places both made and found. It has moved through all of our great religions, despite what the official teachings and proclamations might say. It has even traveled in surprising places like the roots of rational thought and philosophy fathered by Socrates, a man who heeded a wise oracle and listened to the voice emanating from his soul. When we begin to see all of the places that magic has walked and stalked, denned and fed, we see clearly that it has been with us, loping, running, flying by our side and throughout our daily lives since time beyond time. Where else would we expect to find it if not exactly here in our midst, hiding in plain sight?"

Making Magic by Briana Saussy

Autumn magic border=

The passage above is from Making Magic by Briana Saussy (Sounds True, 2019). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources. All rights reserved by the authors. The illustration above is by British book artist Helen Stratton (1867-1961).

Four related posts on magic: Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses; Working with words; In the Story Made of Dawn: on magic and magicians; and Reclaiming the fire and sorcery.