In this article Mark Booth (aka Jonathan Black), author of the bestselling The Secret History of the World and The Sacred History, explores the significance of autumn to the spiritual world and recounts two unsettling and thought-provoking folk lore tales.
The arrival of autumn affects the human spirit. As the nights draw in we are driven indoors and also driven in upon ourselves. Our place in the world feels different.
But does spirit really change? Do spiritual realms have their own season? Do spirits behave differently in autumn?
All the world’s great religions have roots in astronomy. In the great monotheistic religions these roots have of course been covered over and the influence of the gods or spirits of the stars and planets is played down.
In public Christianity denounces astrology, but many ancient churches from Canterbury to Chartres are full of astrological symbols, and most are built according to an astronomical orientation which is as exact as that of an Egyptian temple. Christian archangels are routinely represented as the great spirits of the heavenly bodies – St Michael being the Archangel of the Sun, for instance, and Gabriel the Archangel of the Moon. In The Secret History of the World I show how at the time the Fourth Gospel was written ‘the Word’ was a traditional title of the Sun god who, it was said, would come to lighten the darkness. I show, too, how in the Bible Lucifer is identified with ‘the morning star’, which is to say Venus.
There is much more going on in Christianity than meets the eye – and these hidden elements are described in secret or ‘esoteric’ teachings. In these teachings the stars and planets have not only had the role in helping to form human life that modern science allows, they also have had a role in the forming of human consciousness and continue to do so. The revolutions of the planet Venus affect the tides of our sexual desire, for example, and we are enabled to reflect or think because the Moon reflects the light of the Sun.
In the astrological account life on earth moves according to a series of cycles determined by the movements of the heavenly bodies – a daily cycle, a seasonal cycle, a yearly cycle, the cycle formed by the precession of the equinoxes and so on.
As the Sun withdraws and the natural world begins to die, the spiritual world comes alive, becoming more active. Autumn may be thought of as a great door in the cosmos – and spirits come pouring through.
As the mid-point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, Halloween traditionally marks the beginning of winter. The spirits that flow first and more easily through the opening of the great cosmic door at this time are the spirits of the dead. Goblins, ghosts and the spirits of the dead are the lowest denizens of the spirit worlds.
It was traditionally thought that the beginning of winter was a propitious time to interact positively and helpfully with the spirits of the dead. The feasting traditionally associated with the harvest and Halloween is intended to draw the dead to us, to make them salivate and encourage them to be nostalgic for the pleasures of the material world. It’s a way of attracting the dead and working with them that is described by both Homer and Virgil, and it is still kept alive in cultures – for example Thailand – where offerings of food are sometimes placed in cemeteries.
None of this is necessarily done in a doleful way. Think of the Day of the Dead in Mexico and the fun in all that imagery. Likewise in English tradition ‘mumming’ – from which we get ‘mummers’ as in actors – began when people dressed up like the dead to make them feel at home, to greet them in a playful sort of way. The word ‘mummer’ comes from the mum-mum sound these mummers used to make imitating the walking dead’s attempts to speak.
Halloween has always been a time when you might commune with your ancestors, when you might ask their advice on your future dealings, a time when the spirit of prophecy was particularly strong. Halloween parties today still sometimes include the old game of apple-bobbing, for example. Girls used to bob for apples in search of love. Traditionally the apple is the fruit of Venus; the 5 point pattern pips make in a slice of apple mimics the patterns that Venus makes in the sky over a 40 year period. If you bobbed successfully, you’d put the apple you pulled out of the bucket under your pillow that night and hope to dream of the man you’d marry.
Autumn then is a time to explore the great mysteries of life, death and destiny, to get to grips with what it means to die, even to taste death. In the bleak midwinter, on the 25th December, the sun-god will be born and the death forces will be driven back, but in the meantime the world grows darker and colder. The Fall is then the fall into matter.
The great spirits of death weave in and out of our daily lives and may brush past us though we are unaware of them. In esoteric philosophy as in depth psychology the death forces and love forces – thanatos and eros – are tightly interwoven and we are never closer to death than when we fall in love. This spiritual reality is revealed in a beautiful Scottish folk tale. The notion of the corn dolly may well seem charming, even comforting, but that is perhaps because we have lost touch with spiritual realities that may have been more alive to us when we worked in harmony with the changing of the season. (And it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that, as I show in The Secret History of the World, the original corn dollies were effigies of Osiris and totems of death. In spring new sprouts pushed through the dolly’s silver mask to give us the image we know today as the Green Man).
Two sisters lived in a little cottage on the Isle of Mull. Margaret was a great beauty with black hair and flashing eyes, but she was also a dreamer. She preferred her own company. Her sister Ailsa was more outgoing, and at an early age she made sure she found herself a boyfriend in the village. He was a sturdy farmer’s son, a good, reliable marriage prospect from a respectable family. Ailsa began to spend more and more time in the village.
Meanwhile Margaret was happy to be left alone, daydreaming that someday her prince would come. One hot summer’s morning when she was working in the garden, she looked up to see a dark, handsome stranger coming in through the gate. He had black hair like her own, and intense, gleaming eyes, and she could tell from his clothes that he was not local – a traveller, maybe a gypsy. He asked for a mug of water, and as it was nearing lunchtime she also invited him in for something eat. And he stayed with her all afternoon, disappearing before evening when Ailsa was due to return. He said he would come back, but he made her promise never to tell a living soul about his visit.
Shortly after this Ailsa married and moved out of the old cottage to set up home in the village. Margaret continued to live in the cottage, where she lived for her secret lover’s visits.
Sometimes Ailsa would visit her and try to encourage her to come to the village more often in order to find a suitable husband. Margaret said she wasn’t interested. She would only marry for love.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about!” Ailsa said, exasperated. “What do you know about love?”
Margaret’s eyes flashed. “More than you do…” she said, but she knew the moment the words were out of her lips that she’d made a fatal mistake. She made Ailsa swear on the Bible not to tell anyone. But Ailsa couldn’t keep her sister’s secret to herself, and the next day everyone in the village was gossiping.
The gossip didn’t reach Margaret herself, but her lover didn’t come to her that day, nor the next, nor the next. Then she went out into a storm, weeping and wailing and crying out and cursing her sister.
Weeks went by and no-one saw or heard of Margaret, so eventually Ailsa went to the cottage to find her. The door was wide open, the kitchen full of leaves and it was cold and damp. It looked deserted.
In the months that followed shepherds would occasionally report that they’d seen or heard Margaret in the hills. She lived out in the open, they said, still weeping and wailing for her lover. It seemed she had gone mad.
But life goes on, and joy came to Ailsa and her husband in the form of their son. Called Torquill, he grew to be big and strong, a bit like his aunt Margaret in his style of looks. He was a great help to his parents, and when still only a boy he was recognized as the best reaper in the village. As such, it was his privilege at the end of the harvest to take his sickle and cut the barley to make the corn dolly.
A few years passed and rumours began to circulate of a beautiful young girl in the country surrounding the village who was herself an astonishingly good reaper. Torquill was eaten up by curiosity.
One autumn evening with the harvest moon rising in the sky he was just about to finish work, when he looked up and saw the girl, and he knew who she was, because she was working the field too and she was ahead of him, wielding her sickle with exceptional skill. It flashed in the moonlight and she called to him “Over take me! Overtake me!”
Torquill laughed as he took up the challenge, and began wielding his sickle with as much force and speed as he could muster.
“Over take me! Overtake me!” she cried again.
But he couldn’t seem to gain on her. He was drenched with sweat and his back was aching like hell, but he drove himself harder.
“Over take me! Overtake me!”
His eyes were blurred with sweat as he saw her standing still at last. She had completed the last furrow. She was smiling at him, radiant in the moonlight. She had plaited the last handful of barley to make the corn dolly and was holding it out for him to sever with his scythe. He staggered towards her exhausted, and as he cut the dolly, her eyes flashed and he fell dead on the ground.
Many folk tales of encounters with fairies or journeys into the realm of the fairies are thinly disguised accounts of journeys into the realm of the dead. The Cornish story relating the experiences of Mr Noy, which I included in The Sacred History, takes place at the time of the end of harvest and its celebrations. This journey the story describes might be involuntary, to be compared, for example, with a modern near-death experience brought about by a sudden illness or road accident. Or it might be the result of a religious rite intended to induce an altered state of consciousness in which communion with the dead would be a practical possibility. In the following Welsh story, with its intriguing hint at the Third Eye, the dead and their representatives are shown mixing freely with us in our everyday world, and at the centre of this story there is a shaman or magus with a foot both in this world and the next.
An old Welsh couple went to Caernarvon to hire a servant at the Allhallows’ Fair. They went to the spot where the young men and women who wanted work were accustomed to gather, and saw a girl with golden hair, standing a little apart from all the others. They asked her if she wanted a place? She replied that she did. Her name, she said, was Eilian.
In the long winter months it was customary to spin after supper. On nights when the moon was shining, Eilian would take her wheel down to the meadow. On these nights she accomplished a prodigious amount of spinning, and the old couple were glad to have secured services of such a skilful maid-servant.
But it was all too good to last. When spring arrived and the days grew longer, Eilian disappeared. Everyone wondered if she had gone off to live with the gypsies – and if she was herself a gypsy.
The old woman was a nurse and midwife, and sometime after Eilian’s disappearance, on a night when the moon was full and there was a little rain falling through a thin mist, a gentleman on horseback came to fetch her. She rode off, sitting behind the stranger on his horse. They arrived at a great house which was situated at the foot of a hill and set into it. The two dismounted and entered a great hall. They went through a door at the far end of it passed into a bed-chamber, where a lady lay in her bed. It was the finest house the old woman had ever seen in her life. Wonderful food was laid out around the lady’s bed, but no servants appeared in the course of the night.
By morning the baby’s fever was subsiding. The husband reappeared and gave the old woman a bottle of ointment to anoint the baby’s eyes with. "Take care," he said, "that you do not touch your own eyes with it." The old woman promised to be careful, but somehow or other, after putting the bottle on the bedside table, her left eye began to itch, and without thinking what she was doing she rubbed it with the same finger that she had used for the baby’s eyes. And now a strange thing happened: with the right eye she saw everything as before, gorgeous and luxurious as the heart could wish, but with the left eye she saw a damp, miserable cave, and lying on some rushes and withered ferns, with big stones all round her, was her former servant girl, Eilian.
In the course of the day she saw a great deal more. There were small men and women going rapidly in and out of the cave. They took not notice of her and their movements were quick and light like shadows. They seemed really fond of Eilian, treating her with kindness and affection.
In the evening the old woman said, "You have had a great many visitors to-day, Eilian."
"Yes," was the reply, "but how do you know?"
Then the old woman explained that she had accidentally rubbed her left eye with the baby’s ointment.
"Take care that my husband does not find out that you recognise me," said Eilian, and she told the old woman her story. It turned out that she had been such a wonderful spinner of cloth because she was helped by the fairies – on condition that she married one of them. "I never meant to carry out the agreement," she explained, "and I used to draw a knife whenever they pestered me too much about it in the meadow. That always made them vanish immediately. And for fear they should carry me off when I was asleep, I placed a long stick of mountain ash across my bed, for I’d been told as a child that no fairy dares touch or even cross a branch of the rowan tree. That kept me safe for a while but after a few months I grew careless, and the day we sheared the sheep I was so tired that I forgot to protect my bed. That very night I was whisked off to Fairyland."
The old woman was very cautious after Eilian’s warning, and that evening she gave the fairy husband no inkling that her left eye had any different power of vision from the right. The next day, the baby seemed to have recovered and so her time came to an end without mishap. She was given a fine sum of money for her services and was taken home on horseback just as she had come.
Sometime after the old woman was late in getting to market. When she arrived a friend said to her, "The fairies must be here to-day; the noise is swelling and prices are rising." Sure enough the fairies were there, but they were invisible to all eyes except the old woman’s left eye. She saw Eilian’s husband stealing something from a stall close by her: she went up to him and, forgetting the warning, said, "Good morning, sir. How is Eilian?"
"She is quite well," he replied, "but with what eye do you see me?"
"With this," said the old woman, pointing to her left. He immediately struck her with a bulrush and from that day she could no longer see into the other world.
See also The Secret History of the World, by Jonathan Black
The Real Mystery Surrounding Dante and the Inferno