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Explore Folklore

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The Myths of Reality

the metaphors and rituals of place and time
- an introduction to liminality

or why Christopher Robin wouldn't walk on the cracks

Bob Trubshaw

We are obsessed with boundaries. Places are divided and sub-divided in a complex web of overlapping patterns of 'ownership', 'sacredness', 'historic interest', 'outstanding natural beauty' and much else. A simple car journey will take us past signs marking the entry and exit of each parish, less frequently past county boundary signs or through the 'portals' of National Parks such as Derbyshire with its prominent millstones. Leaving the the road (note, again, the sense of boundary) will take us along rights of way allowing access through otherwise private property, perhaps with distinctive 'Keep Out' signs.

But not only do we create boundaries in space. Our sense of time is similarly preoccupied. Even in our secular age we celebrate seasonal boundaries such as New Year as well as calendar-based religious festivals such as Christmas. The passage of the seasons brings about conscious recognition even if, these days, the boundaries are less clearly defined. Think of May Day which is still widely celebrated even though festivities are spread from 1st May through the two May Bank Holidays and a number of weekend village fetes and such likes.

On a shorter time scale each new day has its boundary (in our society this is midnight; Celts made dusk the liminal period). For us 'noon' is reduced to a timeless time, a moment rather than a transition. An arbitrary division into hours and minutes creates but barely defines a multitude of interwoven boundaries in secular time.

The time-line of our own lives is also marked by boundaries – starting school, passing exams, leaving school, first job, marriage, first baby, through to retirement and the Final Frontier of death. Traditional custom still dictates the principal activities on such occasions.

One could also observe how we attempt to create clear boundaries between illness and health, war and peace, and – above all – between sacred and profane.

All these concepts are deeply rooted in our cultural and ritual preoccupations. They have been the subject of much research and discussion by folklorists and ethnologists, who tend to us the term 'liminality' (from Latin limen, 'boundary or threshold').

Among the clearest examples of liminality, in all its complexities, can be seen in ethnographical studies of the rites associated with the initiation of adolescent boys into manhood among traditional peoples. Details and complexity vary enormously, as might be expected, but the underlying trends are quite clear. The boys are taken from their villages and families to a comparatively remote 'ritual site' where they are subjected to various ordeals or humiliations and trained by older men. The men may appeared masked, impersonating the tribal gods or ancestors, or the rituals may take place in a darkened hut or cave. In some initiations the boys are mutilated – from simple scarification of the body or face, through to circumcision. Such initiations may take anything from a few days to a few months, occasionally even years.

At the end there is a strongly ritualistic reunion with the home village. Often the boys are considered to have died and been reborn as men; they may be given new names and 'taught' to recognise their relatives and friends. Only after completion of the initiation ceremony can the neophyte be eligible for adult relationships such as marriage.

The important point to note is that there is a 'betwixt and between' phase – where the boy is no longer a boy but not yet a man. This is the 'liminal' phase. In such initiation rites – and one could think equally of Western equivalents such as attendance at boarding school, or entry into secret society such as the Freemasons – there is a period (whether protracted or quite brief) where the candidate is stripped of status. The ordeals and discipline imposed by the initiators further create homogeneity of social status.

The behaviour of novices during the liminal phase of Ndembu circumcision rites suggested that the boys, 'levelled' and 'stripped' of antecedent status, standing and rank, develop a fellowship and comradeship among themselves based on individual choice of friends rather than on kinship and neighbourhood, somewhat in the fashion of modern military recruits in the same barracks room. Like such recruits, they come under the strict control of generalised elders, in contrast to their secular situation where subordination was parcelled out among several kin relationships. No longer are they grandsons, sons, nephews, but simply annoying novices, confronting the general category of initiated elders.

But the apparent powerlessness of the candidates may be compensated by a sense of 'sacred power', derived on the one hand from resurgent nature and on the other from the reception of sacred knowledge. Indeed, it could be said in general that those in a ritually liminal state are moving to a symbolically higher status.

Looking more broadly at ritual events – from full-blown high magick to a christian mass - there is at least a moment when the participants are between normal ordered cultural states. This raises the possibility of standing aside from social positions (while increasing the danger of a potentially unlimited series of alternative social arrangements).

The liminal phase is often associated with protracted periods of seclusion. In ritual seclusion one day replicates another for many weeks. Then again, liminality may contain what may be called 'a time of marvels'. Masked figures, representing gods, ancestors or chthonic powers may appear to the novices in grotesque, monstrous or beautiful forms. Often, but not always, myths are recited explaining the origin, attributes and behaviour of these strange and sacred habitants of liminality. Additionally, sacred objects may be shown to the novices. These may be quite simple in form, like the bone, top, ball, tambourine, apples, mirror, fan and woolly fleece displayed in the lesser Eleusian mysteries of Athens, or the compass and square of Freemasonry.

Metaphor is, at its simplest, a way of proceeding from the known to the unknown. Alternatively, it could be said that ritual is a way of proceeding from the known to the unknown. It seems that individuals create metaphors whereas societies create rituals (I am, of course, deliberately paraphrasing Jung's observation that individuals dream whereas cultures have myths).

Both metaphor and ritual are ways of recognition in which the identifying qualities of one thing are transferred in an instantaneous, almost unconscious, flash of insight to some other thing that is, by remoteness or complexity, unknown to us [1].

Perhaps we can now recognise why Jehovah instructed the Jews to paint blood on the doorways and thresholds at the time of the first Passover; or why the 'doorway' formed by the pillars Joachim and Boaz have such significance to ritual magic; or even why Christopher Robin avoided walking on the cracks between the paving slabs (in A.A. Milne's When we were very young).

At a different level, it is also possible to see a liminal 'levelled out' social structure emerging at pop festivals such as the 'classic' Woodstock and the Isle of Wight and, perhaps, at the best of recent festivals such as Glastonbury. But note that the hippy life style was seen not as transitional but permanently liminal (as is monastic life).

Placeless places

These ethnographial examples relate primarily to liminality in life cycles. The important aspect of looking at other cultures is that is easier to make objective generalisations. The concept of the 'betwixt and between' liminal state then becomes easy to recognise in contemporary western culture – think, for instance, of the wedding ceremony where the 'threshold' ceremony is followed by a 'liminal' honeymoon. Think, too, of funerary ceremonies where the period from death to inhumation (or cremation) is equally 'liminal'.

Acquisition of property and the establishment of property boundaries are dealt with in many legends and tales. These narratives reflect customary law, religious ritual or fiction, and are often a combination of all three.

Taking possession of place can be considered a transaction involving supranormal powers: the land is taken in ownership from those powers through a kind of omen. An example is the tradition of the early settlers of Iceland taking possession of the new land wherever the posts of their high-seats floated ashore.

Another magical way in which land may be acquired is, for example, through hallowing the land by carrying fire around it. Property might also be appropriated illegally, for instance, by moving border stones or markers. Among farmers in Norway this was considered the worst possible crime anyone could commit – it was called 'stealing after death'. The punishment for this crime was correspondingly cruel – the perpetrator was forced to walk again after death and struggle with the border stone.

Property limits might be established by a person getting as much land as he could walk or ride round or plough in one day, or as much as one could shoot or throw something across, or as far as one could carry the boundary stone, or as much as could be covered by strips from a calf skin [2]. (See Penny Drayton's article on oxhide myths).

But boundaries and liminality in time are only one aspect. Boundaries in place are potentially even more significant, and an especially rich area for Earth mysteries. Here, too, liminality can be recognised. Previously friendly neighbours can end up in passionate legal battles over the boundaries of gardens or small fields and litigation over rights of way recur throughout legal records.

In North America wrangles over land rights would lead to both claimants erecting fences on both sides of the disputed area. This would allow farm wagons to pass along the contentious part – a route which was known as 'The Devil's Lane'. A similar name, 'The Devil's Gap', was used at Clare in Suffolk to describe the road between the Six Bells Inn and the church tower.

An undoubtedly infernal liminal zone was the No Man's Land of WWI trench warfare. This reflects the function of boundaries in keeping out enemies. The antagonist may not be human – at times of pestilence Slav women went naked dragging a plough and cutting a deep furrow to enclose the village. We may think of more local customs such as Beating the Bounds at Rogationtide, which still continues in some parishes.

Just as the major calendar boundaries were considered to be times for communication with the Otherworld, so boundaries of place could incite inspiration or enchantment. A seer might seek stimulus at that still-fascinating liminal zone between high and low tide that is neither land nor sea (and which continues to be the chosen place of pilgrimage for millions of sun worshipping travellers every summer). More liminal places – still in the modern mind associated with perceived danger – include caves, wells and paths into forests.

Although more difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, crossroads were once considered to be the most magical places, credited with powers of protection and healing, and favoured places for magical spells and love auguries.

Crossroads were also dangerous places – penal courts often met there, the pillory or stocks and, traditionally, the gallows were so sited. Suicides, gypsies, witches, outlaws and other reprobates were buried there – as innumerable labourers repairing roads have discovered. Folklore abounds with the preferences of ghosts for such 'pauseless places' [3, 4, 5, 6].

In classical Greece two prime divinities were venerated at crossroads: Hermes and Hecate; the latter came to be especially linked to road junctions. Images to both these deities were erected at such locations. Hermes, the trickster par excellence among those crossing the boundaries did not only overcome the boundaries between law and order (as the god of thieves) but with his winged sandals could also cross over between life and death and back, in a truly shamanic manner.

The Romans too erected altars at crossroads for the festival of Ludi Compitales (held between 17th December and 5th January). Parallels are known from northern India and from Japan, where the god Jizo was considered to be the patron of travellers [7].

Plato (Laws IX 873) states that the customary law was for murderers and members of their immediate families to be cast forth unburied at the 'borders of the land' after being executed 'at an appointed place where three ways meet'.

Like crossroads, the areas where several parishes – or even counties – meet may have survived as 'extra-parochial' land up until the last century. Although usually of poor agricultural quality, such as heath land, they may have their origins as sacred places of worship. It is pertinent to remember than the 'heathens' were given their name simply because of their practice of worshipping on the heath.

Where the counties of Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire meet (with Shropshire just up the road) is No Man's Heath. Until the county boundary changes in the 1970s a finger of Nottinghamshire came down into Leicestershire along the Roman Fosse Way (A46) to the Six Hills crossroads where eight parishes form a radiating pattern.

Burials on boundaries

In southern England pagan Anglo-Saxon burials (both cemeteries and isolated individuals) occur near 'modern' parish boundaries. In Wiltshire half the known pagan Saxon sites fall on or within 500 feet of parish boundaries. The sanctity of these boundaries may be far more ancient as at Blandford (Dorset) and Winterbourne Stoke (Wiltshire) groups of prehistoric barrows clearly define part of the present parishes [8].

Neolithic cave burials in northern Italy display a double liminality. The rock-cut tombs are hidden and thus undoubtedly 'liminal', and often located in places of naturally mysterious character which were probably used for seasonal grazing, i.e. on or beyond the limits of the settled landscape [9]. Indeed, it has been argued that one of the key cultural 'preoccupations' of the neolithic was defining the boundaries between 'domesticated settlement' and the 'wild', outside, extraneous world [10].

Before we leave this discussion of liminal places, it is worth attempting to distinguish between three kinds of space. The main sense of space is typically two-dimensional – such as an area of land. In addition there are 'one dimensional' places such as pathways (and ley- like alignments!); these tend to have inherent with them a 'time line' representing a journey along the track. Further, there are places which can be labelled 'zero dimensional'. The clearest example has to be the concept of 'centre' (such as an 'omphalos') although crossroads, as the meeting place of areas of land such as parishes and the intersection of one-dimensional paths, could be thought of as tending towards this conceptual zero dimensionality [11]. Anthony Weir (pers. comm.) has expressed the same idea more poetically: 'Cross roads are not a place but, like sex, an intersection.'

In many traditional cultures 'zero dimensionality' is implicit in the cardinal directions. From Irish mythology to modern day Chinese language, there are five dimensions - north, south, east, west plus centre, the place where one is.

In this context it is worth noting that, just as the 'Dreamtime' of the Australian aborigines is always and never, so the 'dream' or liminal place is everywhere and nowhere. This is the mythic time known in every nursery as 'Once upon a time'; or the Arabic equivalent 'It was and was not so'. The not-quite-physical counterparts are mythic places of myth and folklore such as the Irish Tir na Oige or the judaeo-christian Paradise.

Liminal journeys

Like ritual seclusion, pilgrimage is another ritual event where each day progresses in a manner much akin to the previous one, and where a group of people shed much of their social status. The most intense experience they share is that of accumulating spiritual power, through repeated and intense metamorphosis. From the holy mountains of Japan, throughout medieval Europe, and among the traditional peoples of the New World, the rituals and spiritual goals of pilgrims have near-uniformity. The autobiography of Malcolm X at the culmination of his pilgrimage to Mecca states 'what I have seen and experienced has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held' [12].

The destination place of pilgrimages is invariably liminal. In the case of Mecca, Jerusalem or Rome it is an 'omphalos', a sacred centre. In the case of Compostella it is a peripheral place on the western limits of the known world. An important Indian pilgrimage shine, Pandharpur, was on the borders between Marathi- and Kannada-speaking peoples. The two holiest destinations for Hindu pilgrimage, Mount Kailas and Lake Manas, are on the far side of the Himalayas in western Tibet and difficult of access even in good weather (since the Chinese occupation of Tibet Indians have been denied access) [13].

Liminal living

So far I have skimmed across the sense of liminality in place and time. But behind all this is the experiential sense of liminality. It is not just the neophytes of a tribal initiation who undergo this encounter. Folklore is full of perceived liminality. Lameness seems potently associated with liminality. Think of the Fisher King of medieval Arthurian romances, pierced in one thigh; or of classical legends of Oedipus (whose name translates as 'swollen foot') or Achilles who, if not lame, is killed as a result of a magically susceptible heel.

Babies born with cauls are, in many traditional cultures, considered to have shamanic virtues - or to be werewolves. It takes little imagination to see werewolves and man-animals as liminal.

If man-animals are a tenuous survival of some of the oldest religious practices known, then the whole mythology of witchcraft – the night flying, blackness, animal metamorphosis, female sexuality – tells us something about the standards of the societies which believed in it - the boundaries they were concerned to maintain and the instinctive behaviour that they thought it necessary to repress [14, 15].

Hans Peter Duerr sees the witches as being representatives of the 'wilderness' which everyone needed to experience if they were to fully understand 'civilisation' [16]. It was necessary to go 'outside' in order to recognise what was 'inside'. This is expressed overtly in the idea of a witch being a 'rider of the fence' (apparently the original meaning of several names for witches in various European languages). In a similar manner a shaman may understand his human aspect better after having seen it from an animal aspect.

It is perhaps important to distinguish between 'temporary liminality' – the ritual or metaphorical activity which allows a person to transform from one social state to another - and the state of more-or-less permanent 'outsiderhood' (shamans, diviners, mediums, priests, monks, hippies, tramps and gypsies). A further differentiation could be made regarding 'marginals' who are simultaneously members of two or more culturally distinct groups (second-generation immigrants, persons of mixed ethnic origin, recent migrants from country to city [perhaps one should add 'Good Life' yuppies to the list?], and women in non- traditional female roles). Having little conscious recognition of liminality we tend to blur the distinctions between this and other socially 'undesirable' values. Thus, for instance, shamans may undertake a variety of 'liminal' rituals but their 'everyday' role in society may make them more akin to outsiders.

One personage who was undeniably liminal was the medieval Lord of Misrule (who came into his apogee at the liminal Midwinter festival) and his close associate, the fool or jester. One of the key theatrical devices of Shakespeare's King Lear is the paradoxically-worded wisdom of the Fool and the apparent foolishness of the King.

Acknowledgements

The stimulus to get to grips with this overview of liminality came from Boundaries and thresholds (ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson; Thimble Press, 1993). This is an important and varied collection of papers, not least the succinct introduction by Hilda Davidson. While I have only skimmed across the surface of this broad topic, Boundaries and thresholds provides excellent in-depth substantiation, very little of which I have included here.

References

1: The introductory remarks up to this paragraph draw heavily from Victor Turner's Dramas, fields and metaphors (Cornell UP 1974).
2: Reimund Kvideland, 'Establishing borders: the narrative potential of a motif' in H.R. Ellis Davidson (ed.) Boundaries and thresholds, The Thimble Press, 1993, citing several Scandinavian-language sources.
3: The placeless places section is based closely on part of Hilda Ellis Davidson's introduction to Boundaries and thresholds (Thimble Press 1993); examples include those cited by W. Hand in 'Boundaries, portals and other magical spots in folklore' (Katherine Briggs lecture no.2, Folklore Society, 1983).
4: Jeremy Harte, 'Haunted roads', The ley hunter No.121, 1994.
5: Nigel Pennick, The cosmic axis, Runestaff, 1987.
6: Rev Worthington-Smith, Dunstable and its surrounds, 1910.
7: Martin Puhvel, 'The mystery of the cross-roads', Folklore Vol 87 1976, II
8: Nigel Pennick and Paul Devereux, Lines on the landscape, Hale, 1989.
9: Richard Bradley, Altering the Earth, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1993.
10: Ian Hodder, The domestication of Europe, Blackwell, 1990
11: Emily Lyle, 'Temporal centres and boundaries' in Shadow Vol 8, 1991.
12: Malcolm X, Autobiography, 1966.
13: Victor Turner Dramas, fields and metaphors (Cornell UP 1974).
14: Keith Thomas, 'An anthropology of religion and magic II' in The journal of interdisciplinary history VI, 1974
15: The liminal living section touches upon topics which are discussed at length in Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies, (translation of Storia notturna, publ. Turin 1989) Random House 1991 (paperback Penguin 1992). Anyone interested in liminality as manifest in medieval witchcraft is recommended to obtain this book.
16: Hans Peter Duerr, Dreamtime – concerning the boundary between wildness and civilization, Basil Blackwell, 1985 (trans. from German edn 1978). Another book recommended for follow-up reading; individualistic but inspirational.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.22 February 1995.

An updated version of this article appears as a chapter in Explore Mythology

See also Alby Stone's article on the perilous bridge.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 1995

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