Pushing the boundaries

“Not exclusive to, but nonetheless of great significance to the supernatural landscape, is the concept of boundaries which are applicable to many areas of folklife and lore, such as folk customs, material culture and folk belief. Any discussion of supranormal creatures, metaphysical experiences or supernatural landscapes is almost impossible without some grasp of the fundamental role boundaries play; they exist at the junctures between the world of the natural and the supernatural. Like a membranous film they separate and delineate one place or one state from another:

this separation of the mysterious and the familiar has a practical advantage. It segregates the world of mystery from the world human beings have some control over. Without that boundary, the world of mystery does not stand apart from the world of human making; each world contaminates the other. (1)

Boundaries between regions and territories, ‘like boundaries between years and between seasons, are lines along which the supernatural intrudes through the surface of existence’ (2). Crossing them can prove a physical, a spiritual, or a mental event. They can be intersected intentionally or unintentionally, by humans or non-humans, symbolically or substantively. Every human being, indeed every living thing, has crossed some sort of boundary, for instance, in the eternal cycle of birth, copulation and death.“(3)

I just read the above the other day, and I keep coming back to it. I feel the essence of what’s said profoundly important. Henderson’s book is an academic treatise, and as such is grounded in scientific materialism. She’s not attempting to define the “reality” of her subject matter, but rather to examine the grounds for its popular historical belief. I find it particularly fascinating when academics come up with some ideas and concepts which really feed back into a more mystical approach, for want of a better phrase.

Liminality is a key concept in witchcraft, in magick, just as it’s a key concept in the work of J.G. Ballard, of William Burroughs, of Mark Fisher, in nature writing, in art… Not everyone is drawn to the liminal, but there are many who feel the pull, and are compelled to act upon it. Votive offerings, made to the waters from wooden causeways in our prehistory, are one of the prime archaeological examples. Cave paintings, created in near darkness, in places that were almost impossible to reach, provide an even older example.

There is much in fairy lore that deals with the importance of boundaries. Buildings could be changed if they were constructed across unseen boundaries, adjusting the foundations (the literal boundaries of the building) to ease relations with the good folk (4). Indeed, creating boundaries on the landscape was of key importance to our ancestors, as can be seen in the monumental earthworks and causeways that litter the British Isles. Church boundaries are a likely continuation of earlier boundary lore and practice, and there is much medieval material on the mystical importance of correct boundary marking and creation (5). “Beating the bounds” is an ongoing tradition in some ancient British villages.

I particularly like the idea of the other world bleeding through, ‘the supernatural intrudes through the surface of existence’. This is something that can be felt, intuited at some sites, and I think has much to do with our notions of The Sublime. Some places seem to speak to the soul.

The final paragraph, especially the section I have quoted in bold, is another profound thought. It’s actually incredibly simple, obvious even, but it certainly deserves some careful thought. We have all crossed the boundary, all of us. Human and non-human, we’ve all come here from nowhere. We have come from nothing. We return to nothing, to we know not where. The hedge of traditional witchcraft, the desert of Christian mysticism, the abyss of Western esotericism – all must cross the boundary once again. Whether we choose to explore that liminal space, to explore the boundaries while we live… That’s for each of us to decide.


Notes:
(1) Kane, Sean. Wisdom of the Mythtellers. pp. 102-3. (Peterborough, 1994)

(2)Rees. Celtic Heritage. p. 94

(3) Henderson, Lizanne. Scottish Fairy Belief. John Donald, Edinburgh, 2001. pp. 43-4

(4) The good folk here being the popular terminology for faery. This is a complicated and broad term, covering a wide array of beings, but rest assured, Disney is way off the mark here. We’re talking beings who could be malicious, evil, or trickster at best. For more on boundaries and faery lore see McManus, Diarmuid The Middle Kingdom.

(5) For more on ancient and medieval boundary lore with regard to appeasing the otherworld, see Lecouteux, Claude Demons and Spririts of the Land. Inner Traditions, 2015. This book is also hugely valuable in helping to explain the pre-modern view of the spirit world and its various denizens, with particular reference to the nomenclature being reduced by the act of translation.

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