If you had to find a witch, where would you start?
I bet you’d look into the nearest forest, preferably by night, with a full moon in the sky.
Something about this setting feels right when talking about witches, and it’s not by chance.
Here I’m going to explore what witches and forests represent in popular imagery and stories, particularly in Dante’s the Divina Commedia and the folk tale “the Sleeping Beauty“.
First let’s clarify a few things about the Moon.
As the sun brings light to the world, the Moon defines the night. Together they are the mythical eyes of Horus.
By day all life thrives, visibly defined by the sunlight. Everything appears as it should be, giving us comfort and clarity of thought.
But at night things change. Shadows surround us, logic weakens and uncertainties arise. As the outer world gradually fades away, the inner world awakens. Thanks to the moonlight we are able to see the outline of a landscape, but the prevalent darkness will leave plenty of room to our imagination. We can therefore say that there are two distinct aspects of the Moon: the comforting light it brings to the night, but also an unsettling way of concealing and playing with darkness and our imagination.
Here we’ll talk about the second aspect, that we’ll conveniently call the Dark Moon, the primordial feminine force in its obscure aspect (Lilith in some mythologies), as to differentiate it from the other Moon, the one associated to feelings and intuitive understanding.
Moon, Witches and Forests are images through which the force of the “inner world” is symbolically expressed in the arts and myths, like different branches of the same tree.
Now that we’ve clarified what a Dark Moon is, let’s look at the forest and see how they might be symbolically related.
The forest is a necessary accessory of the witch, as Vladimir Propp puts it, a perfect metaphor of the insidious twists and turns of the unconscious mind. It’s also motherly in a way, but this mother aspect is a harsh teacher. It can capture you and cast you into despair, like someone teaching a child how to swim by throwing him into a river.
It’s no coincidence that Dante, in the Divina Commedia, starts his journey in a dark forest. In fact, he simply finds himself into one , not knowing how he ended up there. The experience is so terrifying that he can’t find words to describe it.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.
Imagine that. The poet who wrote about hell itself couldn’t find words to describe a forest? What kind of forest was that?
The forest is a metaphor of the depths of the unconscious mind, the inner world. It overwhelmed him so much that he was “full of slumber” like the Sleeping Beauty. In modern times we would describe such emotional state as confusion, depression or anxiety.
The “true way” is one of the many possible translations for the italian “retta via“, which also means straight and right, as to signify the way of reason.
Lastly, by slumber he means the sleep of rationality and the following panic.
Summarizing: he lost his reason and found himself in confusion and panic. He’s talking about those critical moments in one’s life when we feel like we hit a wall, we can’t find clarity of thought, we are lost, lonely and miserable.
This illustration by Gustave Doré is a perfect interpretation of Dante’s writing.
The composition lines tell the story as appropriately as the images themselves. The diagonal running from the top left corner down to the bottom right guides our eyes to Dante, delivering the idea of a “fall”, rather than that of journey.
Then we can see that Dante is looking behind because there’s only darkness ahead, but he can’t walk back because roots obstruct the way, almost entangling his feet. There’s an evident sense of entrapment and stillness in the scene.
Roots and branches are often used to represent the aliveness of the forest, its imaginary arms. Sometimes artists like to depict them in the shape of boney hands. We’ll find them again in the Sleeping Beauty tale.
Ultimately the whole journey from hell to heaven is an allegorical inner journey where Dante confronts his own demons (Hell), then cleanses himself (Purgatory) and finally meets his beloved in Heaven, the sacred feminine (Beatrice and the Virgin Mary) in the kingdom of God (the Self).
The sacred feminine is the White Moon (or simply Moon, as we said at the beginning), which is the feminine principle of the High Priestess of the Tarot, which unites man to the divine mind by acting as its messenger: intuition and emotion.
The White Moon aspect is quite obvious in the last Chant (Chant XXXIII) of Heaven, especially when Dante meets the Virgin Mary. But looking into it now would take too long, so we’ll keep focusing on the Dark Moon.
In the end it’s interesting to notice the two polarities in the Divina Commedia: the Dark Moon of the forest at the beginning and the White Moon at the end.
It’s all allegorical, not religious dogma, despite Dante’s use of religious themes. What it means is that no trips to heaven start without falling into the horrifying dark forest of the unconscious mind. Dante faced his own shadow, which in Jungian terminology means precisely the unconscious and its content.
I must clarify that some researchers use the term “shadow” to signify evil, unproductive fears, discomfort or other things, but here I use it as Jung does. I like the word he chose because the unconscious is mysterious and filled with repressed content that might be scary and uneasy to look at, but it’s not evil, even though eventual evil acts arise as a consequence of the repressed content of the unconscious. Great studies have been done into the nature of evil and psychosis, but the shadow (unconscious and its content) is common to all human beings obviously.
Now take a look at this famous work by Francisco Goya.
Goya titled it “The sleep of reason produces monsters”.
It’s the perfect summary of what we’ve seen so far.
Fortunately for Dante, he met reason in the body and mind of his mentor Virgilio. He’s the one who guided him through hell. Another very interesting allegory. Without reason we succumb in the dark forest, which is ultimately the Dark Moon’s domain.
So we’ve seen what the forest represents, but we haven’t seen the witch.
Sometimes there’s no need to explicitly show an actual witch to suggest her oppressive presence. The movie “The Blair Witch Project” is a good example of this. Personal taste aside, one can’t deny the terror of pure darkness in some of the most effective horror movies.
It’s simply the fear of the unknown or the unseen. The blackness becomes an open canvas for our obscure and imaginary projections. The more tormented we are inwardly the more terrorizing the experience will be.
In Part II we’ll finally meet the witch by taking a look at the Sleeping Beauty tale and the Tarot, but first we can conclude adding two more classic accessories to the witch: the broom and the black cat.
Without going too deep into these motifs let’s just say that they are emanations of the very same symbols we’ve seen so far. The broom is like a leafless tree of a dry forest, and the black cat is the wild and unpredictable lunar power whose eyes reflect light in the dark, while his whole body remains concealed.
Posted on 3 December '13 by Alejandro Dini, under Articles. No Comments.
Sexy, big breasted, muscular, semi naked girl wielding a massive sword.
Whoever has been reading comics, playing video-games or watching blockbuster movies for the past decades might have noticed these reoccurring stereotypical attributes of Female Warriors.
This icon might have more than one historical origin, but the most relevant modern incarnation goes back to 1973, when Barry Windsor-Smith gave flesh to Red Sonja, the barbarian woman featured in the Conan comic books. Actually the one who stripped the lady down to her chain-mail bikini was Esteban Maroto, even though she wasn’t wearing much before either.
1973 is a significant year because it’s right in the midst of the second-wave of the feminist movement, which was essentially about sexuality and woman’s role within the family.
Red Sonja doesn’t look like a man, but she takes his role.
She’s physically strong, fully aware of her own sexuality and uses it as a weapon by generously exposing it, while at the same time wielding a lethal sword.
She’s the master of the phallus, the dominatrix of both sexes. She jumps into the battlefield claiming that too as female territory.
Her story is also very significant: before becoming a feisty barbarian, her family was killed and she was raped by brutes. She now baths in blood as the slayer of monstrous men.
Attractive and destructive at the same time.
Of course I’m taking Red Sonja as the culminating example of a social movement, but she had several precursors through the entire century. As examples of the second-wave of feminism in the 60s we find characters like Vampirella, Poison Ivy and the Black Widow.
The names themselves hide symbolic clues: poison, vampire, widow, black and red.
All these are evocative terms and take the shortcut straight to the subconscious mind.
Tolkien was probably aware of something when he created Eowyn (from The Lord of the Rings), the lady who had to find great courage to step into the land of the Lord.
She had to do so cautiously disguising herself, because in a male driven society she wasn’t supposed to be walking where she didn’t belong.
However she did it by fully embracing her own nature in order to defeat the phantom patriarch.
“No living man am I!”, she said.
She wasn’t there to slay manhood nor take its role. She just stepped in to break a spell and restore balance, not to become a feisty barbarian.
She was more than a woman in the material sense. She was rather the embodiment of the feminine principle.
Now if we jump to present times we can understand why the iconic Red Sonja figure took over in our culture, growing as much as to dominate the entire fantasy genre, evolving even further in the entertainment industry and people’s mindset.
For decades media and the entertainment industry have been gradually diverting the image of women from the ideas of motherhood and the traditional family figure, to a more prominent and martial status, because the post-feminist woman is an independent entrepreneur, manager of her own body-mind.
Naturally all social changes affecting women find their reflection in men.
The view of men and women as opposites instead of complementaries inevitably fed the conflict (the “Men from Mars, Women from Venus” idea).
But as women take the stereotypical role of men, the opposite happens as well.
Nowadays sexuality has being deprived of its natural dualistic aspect.
What remains is sex for its own sake, a genderless force glorified above all as the only possible pleasure.
Sex is now a comparative value among people, a collectible trophy, a life purpose, an analgesic, a prosthetic replacement of relationships.
With the homogenization of male and female characteristics we are gradually assisting to the erosion of the family as the trine man-woman-offspring.
After 50 years Red Sonja is now a single lady of the Sex and the City, a lonely Desperate Housewife, but also a daring Lara Croft, an armed soldier, a sadomasochistic Lady Gaga beating men with a whip, when she’s not Pussy Rioting her way through political oligarchs.
However, since sex now hovers above all as a despotic pulsional entity, objectification of sexuality became an inevitable symptom.
Red Sonja’s attractive weapon turned against herself and made her a lifeless doll for male sexual fantasies.
But one must admit that it was a sexual battle to begin with. The outcome was inevitable.
The latest stage of this cultural process affects man more than ever.
For woman to be once again publicly rescued man as to be destroyed by representing him as a potential violent rapist, an incompetent stupid daddy, a bestial ogre succumbing to his own sexual or murderous urges. The embodiment of Eros and Thanatos.
In other cases man is taking the spot that woman left vacant, and he appears as a castrated, shaved, metrosexual puppet on an advertising poster.
In the end he’s as sexually objectivised as women are, but mostly with negative attributes.
These are the themes we are being fed in many forms through fashion magazines, TV shows, popular novels, daily news, movies, comic book characters, political speeches…
As long as men and women are believed to be a dichotomy this type of portrayals will go on, unleashing endless debates, clashes and contradictions.
There’s reasons for all this, and they are certainly more complex than what can be demonstrated here, but this is not the place to dive deep into the sociopolitical roots of the phenomenon. The point here is not to provide answers nor take sides, but to raise an issue about certain paradigms that are often given for granted or wrongly dismissed as “human nature”.
I’m surprised when video-gamers say that chain-mail bikinis are not realistic. Surely they aren’t protective in battle, but what kind of realism are they talking about?
The Red Sonja icon is actually a very fitting representation of the contemporary idea of woman (and of man consequently) when we keep into account all of the above. In that sense it’s very realistic, or rather appropriate.
The point is not to dress her up to quiet down fiery feminists, but to understand who or what she represents, because only through this analysis the spell can be broken again.
“No living man am I!”
It’s interesting to notice that traditional Tarot symbolize women in several cards, but the archetypal ones are the High Priestess and the Empress. Summarizing: the first representing divine intuition, the second representing the motherly creative womb.
Doesn’t it sound more fitting? I can gladly say that the wonderful real women in my life can be represented by these two Tarot cards, rather than a dissociated blood thirsty Black Red Sonja Widow.
So why is the Red Sonja character still being proposed again and again in different incarnations?
Yes, Red Sonja is also sexy and fun to draw, but here’s why illustrators have a key role in all this.
While it’s natural for certain symbols or motifs to arise as expression of cultural movements, once such symbols become commercial stereotypes and are repeatedly imposed to support a company’s traditional public image or to profitably draw all the possible juice from a trend, they become subliminal advertising, with all its ideological repercussions. They become crystallized ideas in the collective instead of following the movement of insightful individual expression.
The need of coming to this understanding is more important now than ever, because technology is feeding us symbols every day, but we hardly have the chance of exploring what they truly represent, causing a most severe neurosis and dissociation.
If art has one role it’s precisely that of sanitizing the relationship between man and its symbols.
Sadly, too often we hear the intellectually lazy mantra: “It’s just a game/a movie/a comic book”. If that’s the case and art is reduced to just being the servant of that, then it truly is an overrated activity.
By becoming conscious of our modern iconography, symbols can gradually find their place in the psyche. Dualism is reconciled.
The individual can still use them, but through this understanding the symbol will go through a metamorphosis according to its archetypal connotations, not to the regurgitated ideas of consumerism, collectivism, political dogmas or ideological propaganda.
Posted on 17 November '13 by Alejandro Dini, under Articles. No Comments.
A new fun thing titled “Pinocchio Rewired”
This is a reinterpretation of a famous scene.
By the way, I’ve read Pinocchio again and watched the Disney movie for the first time.
I can’t say I was impressed by any of the two for very different reasons, despite some evident and undeniable merits.
But getting into this now would take too long. Maybe one day I’ll write a blog post about it, but I don’t want to shatter the dreams of those who loved the book and the movie, so for now I shut up.
The word “Logo” comes from the greek “logos” which means “word” or “speech”. Isn’t it interesting? Why do we use this term to describe visual symbols like corporate logos?
In fact it’s not surprising, because the mind communicates through symbols. Symbols are the true language of the human psyche. Visual symbols have a particularly powerful effect on the mind because they get straight to the subconscious.
Symbols are timeless. They are the very fabric of the psyche and they speak through generations in the form of Mythical stories.
The ancients preferred to transmit knowledge or tales in the oral form or through evocative iconography. The spoken word doesn’t have a lasting form, but it’s born in pure freshness. It arises in the present, for the present moment.
There was a reason for this.
An oral storyteller lets words be shaped by the moment and inspired by imagery (archetypes). In doing so he keeps the Myth alive. His memory taps into the substance of the story he’s telling, instead of being a schematic repetition of events.
This is what kept folk tales so lively and powerful through the centuries.
It’s hard for us to understand this approach, because we are used to the written word as the only way of transmitting knowledge. This type of transmission can be useful, but it encourages repetition through memorization and dooms understanding and integration of the message.
It gradually disconnects us from the inner voice.
In our modern times we are being constantly flooded by sounds and images hammering our senses restlessly. Everything is recorded and sealed in time. We live in fear, desiring to come as close as possible to immortality or at least to the illusion of it by sealing it in written or recorded form.
However, we don’t realise that nothing is more doomed than something born in time, for time. The oral storyteller isn’t concerned with his own mortality or a written name on a piece of paper. His only desire is to be a medium of the Myth, as the symbolic voice of the whole of humanity, because a man who’s well acquainted with the Myth has a chance to find harmony between himself and the world.
Humanity itself isn’t eternal. However the universal laws and its archetypes are.
Carl Jung and many others have spoken about the archetypes of mind, but the ancients knew about them already and expressed them in many ways. They had studied the laws of the cosmos and man by studying nature itself, its geometrical harmonies, its numerical expressions. Stories were born out of this understanding.
They never considered man as an exclusively intelligent being whose only goal is to dominate a dead and dumb world, but as an integral part of the cosmic dance itself.
Getting consciously reacquainted with the symbol is vital for anyone dwelling into the activities called the arts, but these days even in this field we see too much homogenization, thematic repetitions, conformity and the horrible politically-correct.
The internet itself is a double-edge sword that might give voice to some minorities, but also nullify individual expression by encouraging the hive-mind mentality through the viral propagation of standardised ideologies.
Modern artists are seldom the voice of inspiration, the earth-shakers of social dogmas or storytellers; we just act according to acquired concepts and ideas we blindly embraced somewhere in life and never questioned. We are our own censors, too busy running towards flags before even wondering who or what the runner is.
We are the rats misled by a vicious piper who’s playing the most sacred of instruments (the symbol) against us, because he knows we can’t resist the call.
Myths and Symbols don’t belong to anyone, they are the voice of humanity.
“It is the artistic mission to penetrate as far as may be toward that secret ground where primal law feeds growth.” – Paul Klee
Artists more than anyone should consciously bath into symbols and myths like the ancients did, because if they don’t, who will? Who will be the Mercurial messenger of the Gods?
Posted on 5 November '13 by Alejandro Dini, under Articles. No Comments.
The High Priestess is the second Major Arcana of the Tarot. Explaining its meaning would take took long and many books have been written about these things already. It’s best not to add more “bla bla” to it and let it speak for itself. Ultimately it’s all about perception and intuition, as any artwork is.
Original size: about 55100×3100 px