Sunday, August 26, 2012

Norwich 1912 Floods

The summer of 2012 in England has been a bit of a wash-out, not just the wettest ever April to June since records began in 1910,  but in fact the wettest summer for over one hundred years.  However, no  matter how dismal this summer's been, no loss of life has occurred from the weather, unlike events in Norwich a century ago. 

After 7 inches of rain fell over several days in late August 1912, the river Wensum which flows through the City finally burst its banks, resulting in floods radiating over a 40 mile area. It's estimated that the rain fell at the rate of one inch of water an hour and in total four people lost their lives. Those who remained in their homes had food and other supplies delivered to them by boat or horse and cart. The city's rail-links to the outside world were  temporarily blocked by flood-water, fallen trees and debris.

On August 31, Henry John Copeman, Lord Mayor of Norwich at the time, wrote to all the nation's leading newspapers - “Following a rainfall unprecedented in the records of the Meteorological Office, whole streets in the low-lying part of the city have been flooded, houses rendered desolate, the furniture and bedding destroyed, and their occupants homeless and resourceless".

But as ever, such a disaster united people and brought out the best in them. Members of the Royal Family donated £300 and the King and Queen of Norway gave £21, but the biggest donation came from the local industrial entrepreneur J. J Colman who donated £1,000,  an enormous amount of money a century ago. The total amount of money given to the people of Norwich came to £24,579 14s 7d. A report outlining how every penny was spent was duly published.

Nowadays we tend to attribute natural disasters to climate change, but in fact natural disasters, in particular flooding in this region, have occurred throughout history. The worst case being the 1953 North Sea floods, which, due to a fatal combination of winds, atmospheric pressure and high tides, affected not only East Anglia, but also Scotland and Holland, resulting in the loss of over 80 lives on the North-West Norfolk coast alone. The 1953 floods claimed over 2,500 lives, the low-lying Netherlands being by far the worst affected nation. 

Wiki-Link - 1953 floods

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


The seductive figure of the mermaid has a fascinating place in world art and literature. 

An early western literary account of the mermaid legend occurs in a medieval Romance which tells of Melusine, a fairy of extraordinary beauty who sometimes changes into a serpent. A popular fifteenth century Romance recounted the tale of Melusine, a fairy who promises to marry Raimondin of Lusignan and make him a rich king if he agrees to marry but never to look at her on a Saturday evening. They marry and Raimondin grows wealthy, while Melusine with her magic builds him a castle. Raimondin however, is also consumed with jealousy, suspecting his wife of unfaithfulness. One Saturday evening he gouges a spy-hole through a wall to watch Melusine when she retires to her room. While she is bathing he sees that his wife has become half woman, half serpent. Melusine, distressed at being seen transformed flies away with frightful screams. Associated through marriage with the Lusignan family, Melusine appears over the centuries on the towers of their castle, wailing mournfully every time  a disaster or death in the family is imminent. 

In the utterly charming novel The Wandering Unicorn (1965) by the Argentinian author Manuel Mujica Lainez (1910-64) the legend of Melusine is developed further. Set in medieval France and the holy Land of the Crusades, Lainez’s novel is a rich serving of fantasy and romance. Narrated from the perspective of the shape-changing Melusine, the early events of the original legend are soon recounted before she embarks upon an adventure and unrequited love-affair with Aiol, the son of Ozil, a crusader knight who bequeaths a Unicorn’s lance to his son. Together the young knight Aiol and Melusine travel across Europe to eventually arrive in war-torn Jerusalem of the Crusades. The reader is drawn into Lainez’s neglected gem of magical realism with growing empathy towards Melusine as she recollects her adventures and love of Aiol, only to experience the full emotional impact of the tragic and sad ending of the love-affair between a mortal and an immortal.

18th century Melusine with the four Elements

The Renaissance alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) also fell under the potent spell of the mermaid Melusine. It’s worth remembering that Paracelsus, above all others, was the foremost alchemist who influenced the psychologist C.G. Jung. Both men were physicians of Swiss-German nationality as well as radical protestant theologians. In the darkest year of World War II, 1942 C.G. Jung delivered a conference paper on the Swiss physician at Zurich for the quatercentenary anniversary of Paracelsus's death in 1542, which analysed the symbolism of the mermaid, stating in his essay Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon -

Melusine comes into the same category as the nymphs and sirens who dwell in the watery realms. In his De Pygmaeis Paracelsus informs us that Melusina was originally a nymph who was seduced by Beelzebub into practising witchcraft. She was descended from the whale in whose belly the prophet Jonah beheld great mysteries. This derivation is very important: the birthplace of Melusina is the womb of mysteries, obviously what we today would call the unconscious. Melusines have no genitals, a fact that characterizes them as paradisiacal beings, since Adam and Eve in paradise had no genitals either……Adam and Eve “fell for” the serpent and became “monstrous”, that is, that they acquired genitals. But the Melusines remained in the paradisal state as water creatures and went on living in the human blood. Since blood is a primitive symbol for the soul, Melusina can be interpreted as a spirit, or some kind of psychic phenomenon. Gerard Dorn confirms this in his commentary on De Vita longa , where he says that Melusina is a “vision appearing in the mind.” For anyone familiar with the subliminal processes of psychic transformation, Melusina is clearly an anima figure. She appears as a variant of the mercurial serpent, which was sometimes represented in the form of a snake-woman by way of expressing the monstrous, double nature of Mercurius.[1]

C.G. Jung defined the alchemists of the medieval and Renaissance era as none other than embryonic psychologists who recognized the very real existence of the psyche but lacked a terminology to describe the psyche’s workings. According to Jung-

Paracelsus seems to have known nothing of any psychological premises. He attributes the appearance and transformation of Melusina to the effect of the “intervening” Scaiolae, the driving spiritual forces emanating from the homo maximus.[2]

The four Scaiolae or spiritual powers of the mind of Paracelsian alchemy have a distinct affinity to C.G. Jung’s preciser four nominated functions of the psyche, namely, thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition. Jung defined the Paracelsian Scaiolae and their relationship to Melusina thus-

Since the Scaiolae are psychic functions….as functions of consciousness, and particularly as imaginato, speculation, phantasia and fides, they “intervene” and stimulate Melusina, the water-nixie, to change herself into human form….Now this figure is certainly not an allegorical chimera or a mere metaphor: she has her particular psychic reality in the sense that she is a glamorous apparition who, by her very nature, is on one side a psychic vision but also, on account of the psyche’s capacity for imaginative realization is a distinct objective entity, like a dream which temporarily becomes reality. The figure of Melusina is eminently suited to this purpose. The anima belongs to those borderline phenomena which chiefly occur in special psychic situations. [3] 

In this context the anima figure's role in the individuation process is of great significance. Paracelsus apprehended this fact when identifying the 'difficult' nature of Melusine in her relationship to the Scaiolae of the homo maximus or  the greater man within.

Illustration by Charles Robinson 1937

J. Jacobi in a glossary to selected works by Paracelsus, defines Melusina as -

A legendary, magic being, whose name Paracelsus also uses to designate an arcarnum. He conceives of it as a psychic force whose seat is a watery part of the blood, or as a kind of anima vegetativa (vegetative soul.)

In a fine example of how male fantasy invariably  either under-values or over-values the anima figure (although often considered of a helpful, guiding nature there's also malevolent aspects of the femme fatale in the mermaid) and how Christian misogyny conspired to condemn the mermaid as symbolic of sinful sensuality, the Paracelsian scholar and lexiconographer, Martin Ruland in his Dictionary of Alchemy (1612) asserted -

Mermaids were Kings' daughters in France, snatched away by Satan because they were hopelessly sinful, and transformed into spectres horrible to behold...They are thought to exist with a rational soul, but a merely brute-like body, of a visionary kind, nourished by the elements and, like them, destined to pass away at the last day unless they contract a marriage with a man. Then the man himself may, perish by a natural death, while they live naturally by this nuptial union.

Invariably portrayed as solitary and beautiful with long-flowing hair, not easy to become acquainted  with, changeable in mood and elusive, often fleeing from human presence when approached, with an ability to inhabit an alien element, namely water, the mermaid represents the archetype of the anima in Jungian psychology. The anima is born from unconscious contents associated with, and projected onto ‘the other’  which in the male psyche is the female sex, gender being the greatest divide of nature which includes human nature. 

C.G.Jung considered fish to be perfect symbols of the contents of the unconscious psyche and the element of water itself as a symbol of the unknown and therefore also of the unconscious psyche. In essence the mermaid is a composite symbol of alluring virgin attached to an alien and repellent fish-form. From this tension of opposites, half seductress, half fish, C.G.Jung recognised the mermaid as another symbol connected to the shape-shifting deity associated with reconciling the opposites in alchemy, Mercurius.

During the romantic era of the nineteenth century  the mermaid became an object of sentimentality. Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy-tale The Little Mermaid (1837) inspired Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of the Carlsberg brewery who had been entranced by a ballet he'd seen based upon Anderson’s fairytale at Copenhagen's Royal Theatre. In 1913 Jacobsen commissioned a bronze sculpture of a mermaid by Edward Ericksen which was placed in the entrance to Copenhagen harbour. Ericksen’s sculpture, though often sadly frequently vandalized, has become emblematic of the city of Copenhagen. The capital city of Warsaw in Poland has had a mermaid as part of its heraldic coat-of-arms since the 14th century.

Fascination with the slippery and wet fantasy of the mermaid became increasingly eroticized in paintings of the late romantic era. In British artist Frederic Leighton’s The Fisherman and the Siren (top picture) for example, the sheer unashamed erotic content of the mermaid is celebrated as in many other late 19th century paintings in which the mermaid is an object of  male fantasy and elusive desire.

The mermaid could not possibly slip away into the sea of obscurity and escape from the sharp-eyed scrutiny of the 17th century British scholar of comparative religion Sir Thomas Browne. In his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica, he noted of the mermaid's resemblance in the ancient world to the winged siren, and to Dagon, an ancient Assyro-Babylonian fertility fish-god, noting-

Few eyes have escaped the Picture of Mermaids; that is, according to Horace his Monster, with woman’s head above, and fishy extremity below: and these are conceived to answer the shape of the ancient Syrens that attempted upon Ulysses. Which notwithstanding were of another description, containing no fishy composure, but made up of Man and Bird; ........

And therefore these pieces so common among us, do rather derive their original, or are indeed the very descriptions of Dagon; which was made with human figure above, and fishy shape below; whose stump, or as Tremellius and our margin renders it, whose fishy part only remained, when the hands and upper part fell before the Ark. Of the shape of Atergates, or Derceto with the PhÅ“niceans; in whose fishy and feminine mixture, as some conceive, were implyed the Moon and the Sea, or the Deity of the waters; and therefore, in their sacrifices, they made oblations of fishes. From whence were probably occasioned the pictures of Nereides and Tritons among the Grecians, and such as we read in Macrobius, to have been placed on the top of the Temple of Saturn. [4]

Japanese hentai anime of the anima figure of the Mermaid.  

[1]  C.G.Jung  Collected Works vol. 13. 180 
[2]  Vol. 13:220
[3]  Vol. 13:216-217
[4]  Pseudodoxia Epidemica book 5 chapter 19

Wiki-Links - Mermaid 

Posted for Emily Josephine Jackman on her birthday with love.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Baucis and Philomen

Evidence that Sir Thomas Browne appreciated the artistry of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and also possessed a poetic sensibility, notably when he was far from the city.

Inspired by the good folk of bootiful Norfolk, the following verse, originally written in Latin, can be found in his commonplace notebooks-

'Being in the country a few miles from Norwich, I observed a handsome bower of honey-suckle over the door of a right good man; which bower I fancied to speak as followeth:

I would rather cheer a humble healthy yeoman here,
Than cherish noble noses
And nostrils foul with the plague and contagion...
Nor do I seek to cleanse stinking throats and perjured mouths
With a decoction of my leaves.
Nor do I wreathe the hard lintels of the great,
Compared to whom Cerberus would be a lamb.
But I adorn the kindly door of my master and mistress,
A house where enters neither force nor guile.
Such, if the gods came down to earth from heaven,
Is the cottage which Jupiter and Mercury would enter.*

Adding this footnote-

*Alluding to the fable in Ovid of Baucis and Philemon entertaining Jupiter and Mercury in their cottage; whereof hangs in my parlour from a draught of Rubens'.

Browne must be writing of some kind of reproduction here, perhaps a printed etching, surely not the original oil-painting of Baucis and Philomen (above) attributed to the collective workshop of Peter Paul Rubens (circa 1620-5)

Monday, August 06, 2012

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

The ancient city of Norwich has several interesting associations with western esoteric traditions. It was the retirement home of Arthur Dee (1578-1651) the eldest son of the Elizabethan magus John Dee. Arthur Dee accompanied his father in his travels and adventures across Bohemia and Poland in the 1580’s and remained a firm advocate of the esoteric tradition throughout his life. 

Norwich was also the home of Arthur Dee's friend and physician, Sir Thomas Browne, author of The Garden of Cyrus, an exemplary literary formulation of the type of Neo-Pythagorean thought first developed by John Dee.

The dramatist and pamphleteer Robert Greene, born in Norwich in 1558 is credited as one of the first writers to make a professional living, if at times precariously, from his pen. Nowadays Robert Greene (1558-1592) is remembered as the source of one of the few known accounts of Shakespeare and for his play The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (circa 1589). Greene’s drama centres upon the activities of Friar Roger Bacon (1214-1294) a British polymath and early inductive scientist. Bacon also had a reputation as a magician, one who reputedly devised a brass head which spoke prophecies. Little is known of Bacon's contemporary, the Franciscan friar Thomas Bungay, other than he was educated at Oxford (1270-1272) and Cambridge (1282-1283) and that he wrote a commentary on Aristotle's De Caelo.

In the original legend of 1555 Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay decipher an old Arabic manuscript  of instructions on how to make dead metals come alive. After much work they fasten a head  upon a pedestal of marble, placing clockwork inside it, attaching wires to its tongue and eyeballs. Unable to keep awake to hear their creation speak Friar Bacon orders his servant Miles to keep watch over the metal head. Miles however fails to wake his master at the critical moment when the Brazen Head speaks, first saying TIME IS, then TIME WAS and finally, when it is too late TIME IS PAST thus thwarting all endeavours and the destruction of the speaking head itself. 

According to the modern-day oracle Wikipedia, a Brazen Head (or Brass Head or Bronze Head) was a prophecy device attributed to many medieval scholars who were believed to be wizards, or who were reputed to be able to answer any  given question. It was always in the form of a man's head, and could correctly answer any question asked of it .  Cast in  either brass or bronze, it could be mechanical or magical, and  could answer freely or  be restricted to  simple "yes" or "no" answers.

Greene’s play may have been inspired by the success of the theme of magic in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, which was  also based upon a long-standing medieval legend.  Marlowe’s character of Doctor Faustus and his quest remains embedded deep within the western psyche, while Ben Jonson’s  play The Alchemist (1610) debunks the mystical terminology of alchemy and the pecuniary goal its frequently associated with. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is also notable for being one of the very first drama's which have several plots occurring simultaneously.  

Robert Greene’s drama is one of the earliest literary works featuring notable figures from the western esoteric tradition. The mercurial place of the western esoteric tradition in the intellectual history of the Medieval and  Renaissance era has been explored by many writers since Greene and Marlowe's day, including the Spanish author Cervantes' picaresque prototype novel Don Quixote ( first part 1604) in which the character of Don Antonio Moreno has a brazen head created for him by an unnamed Polish pupil.

In Russian author Valery Brysov’s The Fiery Angel (1908) the Renaissance era of magus Cornelius Agrippa is revived, while in the Austrian novelist Gustav Meyrink’s The Angel of the West Window (1928) the life and times of John Dee are depicted. Magic features prominently in Mikhail Bulgakov's cult novel of satire and fantasy The Master and Margarita (1936) while British author John Cowper Powys (1872–1963)  in his novel The Brazen Head (1956) imaginatively conjures up the world of 13th century Wessex and Friar Bacon. Powys’s historical-fantasy-romance anticipates Belgian author Marguerite Yourcenar’s The Abyss (1968) an account of the life and times of the fictitious Zeno, a physician, philosopher, scientist and alchemist born in Bruges during the 16th century, which, in all probability, is based upon the biography of the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. More recently, the Italian novelist Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) features the Sherlock Holmes-like character William of Baskerville, who may be based upon the English Franciscan friar William of Ockham  (c.1288-1338) an early advocate of the inductive method. Eco's The Name of the Rose, like the aforementioned novels, debates upon the medieval imagination, the tension between the perceived magic of early science and the powerful censorship and prejudices of the Church, as William of Baskerville discovers when the Inquisition is called to a monastery to investigate a series of  mysterious deaths.

Robert Greene's drama must have been well-known to the physician-philosopher Thomas Browne who, writing in his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica  displays an uncommon knowledge of the 'Great Work' of alchemy, interpreting the legend of the speaking, oracular brass head thus-

Every ear is filled with the story of Frier Bacon,that made a brazen head to speak these words, TIME IS. Which, though there want not the like relations, is surely too literally received, and was but a mystical fable concerning the Philosophers great work, wherein he eminently laboured. Implying no more by the copper head, then the vessel wherein it was wrought; and by the words it spake, then the opportunity to be watched, about the tempus ortus, or birth of the mysticall child or Philosophical King of Lullus.  Bk 7: Chapter 1


Text of Greene's The Honourable Historie of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

The 1555 Legend upon which Green based his drama.