Sunday, August 21, 2016

Eye of Newt

Still Life with a Salamander - digital - 2005, 2016

"Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,--
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

- From Macbeth, (Act 4, Scene 1), William Shakespeare.

"The occult world is the hidden world. But what is it hidden from? Well, the occultists themselves usually insist that the world with which they themselves are familiar is hidden from ordinary vision. Most occultists will say that, while it is quite possible for anyone to see this hidden realm, special preparation is usually needed. The majority of people are quite content to pass their lives immersed in the ordinary world of time and space, oblivious to the fact that it is a world interpenetrated by other worlds in which there is a different time and a different space.

The whole range of occult symbols which have come down to us from the remote past is concerned with giving us information about the nature of this different time and space which is hidden from ordinary sight. How is it possible for a hidden world, or an invisible realm, to be represented in ordinary pictures? Imagine, for example, something we have already mentioned, such as the flames which are used to denote the spiritual realm. When an ordinary person looks at a fire, he sees flames leaping upwards. He probably knows that the flames are fed by oxygen from the air, and that what he is seeing is an incandescent gas. Now, when an occultist or an initiate looks with especially sensitised eyes towards the flames of a fire, he does not see only incandescent gases. He sees a sort of life force which is directly linked with the power of the Sun; he also sees that the fire is animated (like all earthly things) by a special soul-being. Such a soul-being is called by modern occultists a ‘salamander’."

- Quote by Fred Gettings from his Secret Symbolism in Occult Art (1987), found in the online article Salamander as soul-being and hieroglyph of fire.


I'm not really officially back to normal posting yet, and I'm not sure when I will be. I'm anxious to get back to the Music Box series before I lose the thread altogether but circumstances dictate that - like it or not (and I don't) - I have to put a great deal more effort into the nuts and bolts (meat-space) side of my existence. It's a survival thing. But, the real question which has always plagued me has come around once again: how does one survive as a corporeal being, and intellectual being, an emotional being and a spiritual being in the phenomenal world of today? One gets the impression that for "most people" - those "ordinary" folks in Gettings' quote (above) - integrating these four modes of existence is not an issue because most are unaware of any existence outside of the corporeal realm. Which may be true, but, I don't believe there are any "ordinary" people.

That being said, when it comes to striking a balance between the four modes of existence, some of us are more flawed than others. In a less complicated world, of course - the superficial world we find on television... glued together by artifice, hype, rhetoric, and generated by meaningless surveys, erroneous statistics, branding and the "common denominator" - any physical or emotional flaw can be fixed by a good diet, a physician, the right variety of potion or powder, or a good pair of running shoes. And, if all of that fails, there's always a dependable life insurance plan. But, in the real world, keeping heart, mind, body and soul functioning together in any sort of optimal way is another story and it rarely ends happily. And, for the artist, the "occultist," the solitary outsider, the unhappy ending scenario is a palpable thing looming cloud-like over the horizon every single day. Poverty is the most imminent threat, but the fear of madness is never far behind...

And, although I hate to have to bring it up, matters of age and gender also (sadly) come into play. Society might forgive a woman "of a certain age," for instance, but they might as easily marginalize her, institutionalize her... or worse.

One reads articles like this one: "It's official: many women become invisible after 49," in which we find (and I quote): "In a world of data-driven policies, there is one group in society that barely registers and is at risk of missing out on crucial resources and services, according to researchers - older women. Much international data, including metrics on health, employment, assets and domestic violence, appears to back up the anecdotal view that women become invisible in middle age. The data sets start at the age of 15 and stop abruptly at 49."

Or, perhaps, this NY Times article from 2014: The Persecution of Witches, 21st-Century Style, wherein we learn: "A final motive driving modern witch hunting may be more venal than spiritual: The police in Indonesia, where there were about 100 suspected witch killings in 2000, point to fraud and graft directed against vulnerable women, who, lacking family or community protection, fall prey to banishment or murder on slim pretexts, while their homes and property are seized by their accusers."

Then again - because, as it so happens, I've collected masses of "fun" anecdotes like these - we have:

"In the crowd was a 17 year old schoolgirl. She suggested that the old woman's house be brought down with a boom. 'I felt a chill running down my spine' said Ruth. 'There were other school kids who were supposed to be in class but had decided that witch-hunting was more exciting. I felt physical pain when I remembered how we, as teenagers, used to treasure these old ladies. Everyone of them was Mama. Today a pretty teenage girl can look at a 60 year old woman and sentence her to death'.

Khathu Mamaila, Sowetan journalist, gave his views: 'To the police those who execute 'witches' are villains who should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But to their communities, these youth are selfless heroes committed to 'freeing' people from 'supernatural evils'. There is a belief in Venda that women have many secrets. By the time they are old they know about many things. Hence the Venda saying that: " All women are the same and all women are witches."

That one happened to come from an older report... from 2001. But, of course, you are probably thinking: what's this got to do with a female artist (of mystical persuasion) living in a "first world" corporate-run country; a more prosperous country whose citizens are (ideally) more rational?

Um, well, as it turns out, I have an anecdote for that, too.

"While being called a witch no longer leads to the torturer and then the stake, it still feels dangerous. This was the cause of tension in the air at a large conference on spirituality held in Seattle in the 1980s. Negative newspaper attention had been focused on the conference, especially on Starhawk, an author and teacher of Wicca. Outside of the auditorium, we encountered men handing out flyers that proclaimed across the top: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22.18), a biblical quote that had given scriptural support to the Inquisition."

That quote originated from Jungian analyst Jean Shinola Bolen from her 2001 book: Goddesses in Older Women... specifically the chapter on Hecate, Greek goddess of the crossroads. Bolen cites another incident involving an ordained Protestant minister - a woman - who found the words "Burn the Witches" spray-painted on her garage door. Bolen describes it as a "Klu Klux Klan warning" in nature, and in many ways this description is apt. Moreover, she goes on to say:

"Sometimes when you know that what you are about to do will appear "heretical," an irrational fear arises, an emotional reaction that seems to anticipate hearing the cry: "Burn the Witches!" This is a transpersonal fear that seems to lie just below the surface in women's psyches, where the fear of being labeled and persecuted as a witch lurks. To feel this fear and to do it anyway takes courage, With a morphic field effect, the more women confront this collective fear, the easier it will become for others."

The "morphic field" alluded to here especially interests me in any discussion of things that might contribute to a woman's overall inability to fully express herself. Because, in a convoluted way, that's what this post is about. Initially, it was entitled "The Practical Mystic," and in it I had planned to merely announce a new project of mine: a small book of some early digital images executed during the period of my friendship with Mac Tonnies. This compilation, along with several other images I intend to have printed and offered for sale, marks a milestone in my personal history and represents a very difficult place in time for me to have finally reached. But, in reality, getting oneself "out there" seems to be a very difficult place for many women to reach, and the older you are the more daunting it becomes. And, if you are in any way "weird" - and lest we forget, the so-called "witches" in Macbeth were also referred to as the "Weird Sisters" (illustrated in the inset images in this section) - another fear comes into play... something deep and seemingly irrational, but, like it or not, an element of our collective "morphic field" and an inescapable part of our history. That is, at one time, a woman who was past child-bearing age, who was solitary, impoverished, eccentric or in any way "strange" was marked for death. And, in some places in the modern world, she still is.

This is Our Corner - painting (1873) by Dutch Symbolist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
discovered here.

"How did you decide to write about a witch?"

"First, I was thinking about [elaborating] on the feminine side of God. Something that we don’t pay a lot of attention, at least in our civilization. The major religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, they deny somehow that God has a feminine face. However, if you go to the holy texts, you see there is this feminine presence. Second, I [wanted to] connect this subject with the visible reality, meaning what’s around us. Everything for me is sacred, beginning with earth, but also going to things made by man.

Finally, "The Witch of Portobello" is about people who dare to take some steps towards an unconventional spiritual path. And they are immediately labeled as witches--and well, witch is a word full of prejudices. The book is about that.  A witch was a person who never complied with the established rules, and always tried to dare and to go beyond and to celebrate life, and to love and to have joy and pleasure while doing this.

... Yes, yes, yes. All women have a perception much more developed than men. So all women somehow, being repressed for so many millennia, they ended up by developing this sixth sense and contemplation and love. And this is something that we have a hard time to accept as part of our society. We try to see reality as just a physical thing and that it does not go beyond that. But what we have to do, women included, is to develop more this feminine side, meaning intuition, meaning being open to a new perception of reality which, in general, women are much more open to."

-  From an interview with Paulo Coehlo - Brazilian writer and author of The Alchemist (and - in my opinion - a male feminist) - which can be found here.


Still Life With a Salamander

Colorized version of the illustration for Emblem XXIX.

"Ut Salamandra vivit igne sic lapis.
(As the Salamander lives in the Fire so does the Stone.) 

But as for the Fire, there are no Animalls said to live in it except the Salamander. Now the Salamander is a creeping worm not much unlike a Lizard, but of a slower pace, bigger head and different Colour, such as I remember seeing in the Alps under the mountein Spulga coming out of the Rocks after Thunder and Rain and lying in the way. And a Country man of the place told me it was called Ein Molch; it had round about it a clammy and viscous moistnesse, by the Virtue of which it freely passes though the Fire without Harm.

But the Salamander of the Philosophers is very different from this, although it be likened to it. For that of the Philosophers is born in Fire."

- Excerpt from Emblem XXIX, Atalanta fugiens, the 1617 alchemical text by Michael Maier.

"A Newt is a type of Salamander that spends a stage of it’s life cycle on land and another in water.  So all Newts are Salamanders but all Salamanders are not Newts.  This charismatic creature has gills during it’s aquatic larval stage, loses it’s gills and grows lungs so that it can wander off into the woods to explore.  When marching around in the woods it is called a Red Eft and can wander for up to 7 years before regrowing it’s gills and returning to the pond to finish it’s unique life.

Research has showed that the Newt also has the ability to use a “Map and Compass” approach never recorded before in amphibians.  It uses the patterns of light coming from the sun, even when it is cloudy, to orient itself to its location.  The compass it uses is literally in its blood.  Red-Spotted Newts are the first amphibians believed to have a Ferromagnetic biomineral inside it’s body to help it read the electromagnetic field of the planet.  The material itself has not been described in full but experiments show magnetic material (such as Magnetite) is highly likely to be the answer to the incredible homing capabilities of N. viridescens.

The last remarkable characteristic of the Eastern Newt is one followed closely by the medical community.  The Newt is a model organism for body part regeneration.  Most of us know that when catching a salamander or lizard, it will lose it’s tail if that’s the only thing you grab a hold of but, this creature takes that to a whole new level.  N. viridescens 'has tissue-engineering skills that far surpass the most advanced biotechnology labs. The newt can regenerate lost tissue, including heart muscle, components of its central nervous system and even the lens of its eye' (Cormier, 2013, Nature).  This Newt is so revolutionary in the way that it regrows it’s body parts that a team of scientists are mapping it’s entire genome in order to discover the secrets behind it’s unrivaled capabilities.  The problem, however, is that it’s genome is 10 times as large as the human genome and is therefore proving to be more difficult and take much longer than anticipated."

- Taken from a wonderful article about the Eastern Newt via the Southern Highlander.


(Note: My good friend, Moo, has just informed me that I sound a tad paranoid in this post, so, it occurs to me that I'd better finish it - and rectify the problem - pronto!)

Truly, I never meant to be depressing when I first uploaded Still Life With a Salamander. Mostly I just figured it might be fun - in a Harry Potterish sort of way - to see it online again. You might say the image was an early (misguided) attempt at Magical Realism... which first appeared about 10 years ago on my earlier (misguided) attempt at a website. I think Mac Tonnies was my only true fan in those days and so much of what I created was in some way related to quirky little ideas which emerged from our conversations at the time. But, some friendships, some relationships have a transformative, almost alchemical aspect to them, and when we find relationships like these, well, we never really let them go. That our bond was primarily an intellectual one - and nurtured in a virtual environment - is not always a bad thing. Actually, between men and women it can be a very good thing; for all of the "baser," more biological aspects can be cast aside revealing something truly golden.

In any case, Still Life With a Salamander was actually the last image - the 20th to be precise - I formatted for the book I've been creating, and cause for some celebration. But, after uploading it, (lo & behold) the thought came to me: what exactly was my point with the salamander anyway?

In many ways visual artists are like sleepwalkers; we operate from a sort of dreamland. Sometimes we consciously know exactly what we're doing. Other times we're on automatic pilot. So while the center attraction of the image is, undeniably, the chalice, one could argue that I was really intent on merely providing a good setting for the salamander... although not for any consciously philosophical reasons, mind you. At the time I created it I had moved off the mythic world and was more interested in other worlds altogether, so, had I ever known the actual esoteric significance of a salamander, I'd probably forgotten it.

A Red Eft amongst dead leaves - Photo credit: Chris Kaylor

One possible motivation for adding the little amphibian, however, might have been that - at some point around this time - I actually did encounter a salamander. It appeared one day at the edge of the woods behind my childhood home in Connecticut.... calmly peering at me from the moss-grown stone wall that separated the woods from the rest of the yard. I had never actually seen one before, but I knew what it was: a newt. Precisely, it was a Red Eft; the youthful, terrestrial, metamorphic stage of the Eastern Red-Spotted Newt.

Take my word for it: the Red Eft is truly a magical-looking creature... slender, diminutive and fragile - the one I found was barely 3 inches in length from its nose to the tip of its tail - with a bright orange, almost translucent skin glowing like a neon sign against the damp, shadowy places one tends to find it. The one I saw wasn't exactly a friendly creature... but, neither was it as shy as you might expect. But, it was only later - during an online search - that I discovered newts don't really need to keep a low profile; their flame-like color is a warning signal to all potential predators that - when eaten - not only is their flesh unpalatable, it is extremely toxic. And, as you can imagine, this toxicity gave them a rather bum rap in the annals of folklore; hence, their misfortunate reputation as an ingredient in witches' brews; well, according to Shakespeare anyway.

Then again, via the Wiki entry for salamander folklore we learn that the Bretons of France so feared the salamander that to even utter the amphibian's name aloud was potentially lethal; especially if a local salamander was in ear-shot!  Oddly enough, however, the French King, Francis I (1494-1547), had as his symbol the salamander, and emblems carved with salamanders (inset, right) can be found in a number of places in his chateau at Fontainbleu (a location you might remember from this post). That a king might choose a salamander for an emblem is a curious thing, especially when his countrymen so loathed the creatures. Well, that is, unless King Francis had some knowledge of alchemy. For, it was around the time of Francis's reign that a Swiss-German alchemist by the name of Paracelsus ordained the salamander as the honorary elemental of fire, although it wouldn't be till the next century that Michael Maier regarded it as the metaphorical embodiment of the Philosopher's Stone.

But, alchemical references aside, there truly are a number of interesting qualities about newts... in fact, after reading the Southern Highlander quote above, you might say the alchemists were truly onto something. Imagine being able to regenerate parts of your body in the way a salamander can! Our technological Cyborgs pale in comparison. Moreover, in the Wiki article on newts we learn that they "have the ability to regenerate limbs, eyes, spinal cords, hearts, intestines, and upper and lower jaws." They can re-grow their hearts and spinal cords?! They can re-grow their eyes?! That's pretty magical, isn't it? Well, it may as well be... which I say, all hail the magnificent salamander! :-)


The Practical Mystic

A futuristic version of the "Weird Sisters" from Macbeth found here.

Lastly - and probably leastly - we come to the underlying premise of this post... that is, the proverbial bottom line. I don't know to what degree a mystic I am, but I do know that I haven't been very practical in the past few years. And, I also know that if myself, my work, and this blog are to survive within this capitalist hell-hole - generally referred to within this blog as "the official world" -  certain steps must be taken.

One of these steps is to, quite simply, sell things... up to and including all the image files I can't afford to print! Another step might be to commercialize this blog... but, honestly, folks, I'd rather just delete it from the blogosphere altogether. My other choice is to add a little PayPal widjet; a little begging bowl where generous readers can drop a few pennies in now and again... making me a sort of cyber-street entertainer. But, I don't mind that. It's actually kind of cool.

In any case, nothing has truly been decided. But, until the current crisis has been resolved, I'm unable to really continue blogging... that is, continue blogging as if there were no wolves clawing at the door. I think you know what I mean. You probably have a few wolves yourselves. Wouldn't it be nice if we were all like salamanders... you can bet those wolves might think twice before chomping down on us!

But, then again, maybe - on a spiritual level -  we are. I'm thinking about all those "witches" burning in the background... and, make no mistake, amongst them were many men. And, I wonder, too, if all those unwarranted deaths didn't in some way poison the perpetrators.

And, you know, actually, I think they might have... if not in this world, then the next.

Could that be the true lesson of the salamander?


  1. Knowledge -- the grail of All Knowledge, the fountainhead of enlightenment, whereas all things hidden shall be known. That of the earth, the sacred mysteries, and elements.

    Love the art.

    1. Good call, BG. Initially (around 2005), the star of the show was the Grail. But as time passes - and as I grapple with this post - it seems that all along the salamander was key... whereas "all things hidden" shall remain hidden. ;-)

  2. Nice salamander. Coincidentally I have a red salamander on my calendar right now. From the Celtic Tree Oracle introduction: "in order to tap into this reservoir of knowledge it is necessary to use a symbolic code. The point being that the subconscious, the group mind, the accumulated experience of human existence with all that that implies, will not yield up its secrets until a message-carrying technique is devised, used and becomes automatic and intuitive in the hands of the person employing it." I have seen popular Buddhists argue similarly that certain symbols are passed down to us so that they can preserve their higher mysteries within our lower level of existence. As for blogging, I would argue that the Internet is a real world manifestation of the Jungian collective unconscious, so that all symbols and language we employ on here are engaging with that tradition in some way, even if we are unaware of it.

    1. Well, that's a cool little synchronicity! I'm not surprised that a religion originating in the Far East would share a similar viewpoint on symbolism... and, as for your blogging assessment... in an ideal sense, I agree. For better or worse, that is! ;-)

  3. "And, for the artist, the "occultist," the solitary outsider, the unhappy ending scenario is a palpable thing looming cloud-like over the horizon every single day." Not if your a newt.

    1. Your..... yeah, not an English native speaker

    2. True. Not if you're a newt... that is, unless you've had your eyes plucked out for a witch's brew. Even if you can grow it back it's got to be a bummer!

      (Not even natives are infallible.)

  4. This is in no way my final opinion, just an exercise based on imagination: let's go with a psychological approach... so if a witch plucked your eyes you would be rendered blind for a wile. I imagine that would be a state of "hiper-reality", not being able to see the "magic" of the world, depression and suffering.. the true dark night of the soul. Yet, when they finally regrow I can only assume your "senses" would have been attuned by the experience, also anyone who has passed through that will know that neither riches nor physical body partes (do I love and respect both) matter as mutch as your perception of them. In the end having your eyes plucked by a witch might not be so bad.. at least in a more magical or psychological sense.
    So... as in the words of the great poet goes "you're a wizard Harry" in this case I point "you're a newt Dia"... or is it your ;)

    1. Actually, that's profound, but I think it all hinges on the true nature of the newt, about which we can only speculate. Does it feel pain like we do? And is its ability to regenerate body parts sheerly an unconscious thing or is the newt both aware and in control of the process? In other words, is it "magic" or all in a days work?

      Am I a newt? Probably not. But, we should all be like newts! :-)

  5. Better go with your gut feeling and put some simetry in it. Imagining a person as a newt ( and I believe we are "more perfect" ) I'l say that yes.. losing a limb will bring suffering, but it is also the only way to grow a new one.. and that I imagine brings pleasure. Also in that sense of simetry it is all very magical and on the same time completely natural. On the process of how to do it... and still going with your so loved simetry... I'l bet it is at the same time a conscious and unconscious enterprise.

    1. Yes, well, in a sense, regenerating a limb or an eye is a matter of symmetry... specifically bilateral symmetry... matching an eye with and eye, a limb with a limb. Perhaps this symmetrical aspect is the template informing the body and mind of the newt of the balance which needs to be achieved.

    2. In other words, the newt is able to restore its body's original symmetry, an idea that was staring me in the face but I didn't see it till you commented. So, thank you, Jorge! :-)

  6. Also... as for the suffering that artists and occultists suffer I for one believe It's usually good. It is a sign of lack of balance.. add that to gravity and you have movement. When and if you finally become perfect you will be a diamond, gold, Budah or Jesus... perfect and symmetric. Then you will stop suffering and maybe just stop altogether.
    Also.. let's assume you suffer because you wish money, that would in ways be a compass saying maybe you need to be more spiritual... on the other side if you feel you are going crazy maybe you should stick more to earth. Just saying... symmetric might indeed be perfect and the end objective... but on the other side even the more natural imperfections that make our human road seem to be also quite perfect if you get me.

    1. Perfect symmetry represents the ideal... all creatures grope for it, all creatures are guided by it, but it's a state few achieve. Asymmetry is reality; symmetry is the dream.