ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

prose fiction:

goose of hermogenes The novel was not published until 1961 although it had been written much earlier: extracts had appeared in print as early as 1939. Even earlier, in 1926, she had written a short story and a one-act play “The Bird of Hermes” on the same theme, that of the alchemical quest. In 1955 Colquhoun painted a suite of five watercolours illustrating scenes from the book perhaps hoping, in vain, that an illustrated edition of the novel would one day be published. Their link was without passion… Goose of Hermogenes is narrated in the first person and set on an unnamed island in a timeless present. On the surface, it is about the heroine’s relationship with her uncle who lives in his island retreat and engages in esoteric experimentation, the ultimate aim of which is to conquer death. He attempts to acquire ancient jewels in her possession in the hope that they hold the key to the elixir of life. In one sense, therefore, the book falls within the tradition of enchanted islands that dates back to Plato’s description of Atlantis. It also belongs to the traditions of the roman noir and the Gothic novel. More specifically, although Colquhoun would not have recognised the term, Goose of Hermogenes contains many of the characteristics of the genre now known as Female Gothic. For example, the female narrator is both persecuted victim and courageous heroine. The spatial symbolism that includes the journey to the isolated island, confinement at the hands of her uncle and the passage through the rooms of the castle, all conform to the pattern that “the structure in the story becomes the structure of the story” (1). Similarly, the heroine’s progression is both sexual and spiritual. She follows an initiatory path from innocence to knowledge, achieves enlightenment and sexual ecstasy and full independence from her parents, who are briskly dismissed as “now dead” at the conclusion of the novel. Starting with a journey across water, weaving through wondrous landscapes and exotic vegetation, the mood is set by erotically charged language. The heroine undergoes trials involving separation and purification. She discovers the transforming power of sexual ecstasy. Through physical imprisonment and psychic probing, she learns about possession, both physical and spiritual. Her original state of disorientated confusion soon deepens into isolation, fear and helplessness. Eventually, however, she returns to her point of departure, to the house where her parents had separated, and achieves reconciliation with her late father. A number of themes run through the book. Alchemy Alchemy forms the structure of the novel and informs much of the imagery. The title itself is a little used name for the philosopher’s stone, the object of the alchemist’s search. The epigraph is a quotation from a lengthy and poetical description of Mercury, ‘the true Key’ of the alchemist’s art by Eirenaeus Philalethes. (2) To emphasis the point, Colquhoun named each of her twelve chapters after a step leading to the accomplishment of the Great Work. (3) The heroine’s trials are clearly a metaphor for the quest of the alchemists. In her physical and psychological journey, she passes through stages of change and transformation just as the alchemist’s Prima Materia are processed and refined. The events in each chapter record the heroine’s spiritual progress and can be linked with the appropriate stage of the physical process. It would be a mistake, however, to attempt an episode-by-episode translation of the events into specific alchemical phases and to seek covert meaning in every description. Colquhoun’s use of allegory, personification, metaphor and symbolism makes this a constant temptation but as she herself wrote: ‘One cannot understand an alchemical text by trying to translate it into everyday language … it needs some faculty analogous to poetic appreciation’. (4) In full knowledge of this warning, however, some examples of Colquhoun’s use of alchemical imagery and processes will make her method clear. In spiritual alchemy, the phase of Conjunction introduces the higher realms of existence, beyond the mundane world. In alchemical texts, this is frequently symbolised by a bird which soars upwards, free of its earth-bound limits and returns with new-found knowledge and awareness. In Chapter 4, which is titled Conjunction, Colquhoun tells the story of two lovers who discover that they have the ability to fly. In their aerial journeying they begin to experience the unity of nature and to sense that the whole cosmos is infused with life: their blood, always a single stream, now pulsed back and forth along the rays of the sun, as from some magnetic heart. (p. 45) During the phase of Congelation heat is applied to the substance which begins to vaporise before condensing and solidifying on the walls of the alembic. Colquhoun represents this instability and change of state in Chapter 6, by contrasting the fluidity of the sea with the solidity of the land. As the relationship between the heroine and a young fisherman develops, the lovers swim, read the Bible (she selects passages from the sensual Song of Songs), and bury each other up to the neck in the healing sands. He performs an unprecedented feat of physical prowess through his oarsmanship and acquires a trophy from his elder sister ‘whose name is future and present and past.’ (p. 67) This is the manifest content. The latent content is the continuing purification and strengthening of the matter and the spirit, and a growing awareness of life outside time. Just as the processes of alchemy provide the structure of the novel, they are also embedded in the décor and furnishings of the uncle’s home. He has, for example, laid out a series of fifteen chambers as three- dimensional translations of the fifteen engravings that illustrate the alchemical text The Book of Lambspring. A journey down the corridor is a journey along the alchemical path. The female principle One theme, which becomes stronger as the story develops, is specifically associated with powers that are reserved for women. In so far as the female principle comes to assume greater importance than that of the male, the theme introduces a departure from the alchemical objective of balanced wholeness, which otherwise permeates the book. It is developed by exploring the heroine’s links with nature and elemental water. She is increasing located within a mythic past in which she, as a female, is the inheritor and possessor of certain traditions and natural powers. The landscape, increasingly exotic and luxuriant, becomes the setting for the exercise of woman’s creative energies. Indications of the privileging of the female occur throughout. For example, the mother of Corolla, who represents the separated female aspect of the androgyne, is named Countess Astarte, thereby forming a link with Astarte, ancient goddess of fertility. Later, in a compound of alchemical and Catholic imagery, the heroine appeals for help from: … my true ancestor, the alchemist’s white woman, lunar progenitrix – it seems that some ritual is wanting. What can I do? Mother of good counsel, help me; ark of the covenant, gate of heaven. It were not right ever to cease lamenting. (p. 54) Similarly, when she ‘opens a vein to the sea’, encircling and capturing Innocencio with her blood, she is performing a magical ritual of bonding by blood-letting in which the sea, standing for the water of life, the universal solvent, is conjoined with her menstrual blood, a traditional source of occult powers. The chapter Cibation, which marks the stage of feeding the crucible with fresh material in order to strengthen it, deals with the eclipse of the mother goddess: her historical loss of supremacy and her subsequent refuge into the contours of the landscape. As is the case elsewhere in the novel when Colquhoun is describing the magic of the female principle, the narrative slows and the language becomes more poetic; part lyric and part lament. Descriptions of women emerging from a drowned cathedral identify women with spirituality and with the sea; a realm where matters are arranged very differently to land based patriarchal society: …here is the end of the land and a beginning of a country under the sea … it is said that our starvation is their plenty; that in time of war here, down there reigns the deepest peace. (pp. 71-72) In what is surely a reworking of those myths in which male warrior heroes lie under the earth awaiting the call to rescue their country from danger, Vellanserga, the pagan goddess, mother and warrior, also returns to the earth. In contrast, however, to heroes such as Charlemagne, King Arthur and sir Francis Drake who merely occupy the earth whilst awaiting their summons, Colquhoun’s goddess becomes the very earth and every part of her is identified with a specific landscape feature: On the slope of Vellanserga’s right thigh, a ghost sometimes appears painfully at dusk, and horses shy on one of her arterial roads. Down the middle of her body goes a slim furrow furred with shrubs, marking the course of her stream towards the sea … Vellanserga sleeps; the thickening of her coma is mist. (p.77) She has become at one with nature, sleeping, and waiting for the time when her powers will once more be recognised and valued. Christianity In addition to alchemical and Neo-Platonic elements, Chapter 5, Putrefaction has a markedly Christian current running through it. As it unfolds, traditional Catholic imagery and symbols, including the orchard of Eden, the gates of Heaven, the magi and the Pièta, indicate that the chapter concerns birth, life, death and the transitional states (dying in life and living in death) that link them. The Christian context is underlined by the repeated refrain ‘it were not right ever to cease lamenting’ which is taken from an old Irish lament for the death of Jesus. Breaking boundaries Alchemically, the stage of putrefaction sees the start of the process of unification, bringing the pneuma, or spirit, into the altered material. Colquhoun’s life-long preoccupation with transitional places and intermediate states is demonstrated as she focuses her discussion on the flexible boundaries that separate the world of the living from the realm of the dead. She gives a lengthy explanation of the mechanisms of haunting and how ghosts choose whom to haunt among the living. Here she relies heavily on Plato’s account of how each fractured half of the divided androgyne seeks reunification with its soul mate. When the heroine later realizes that her sisters are working in a brothel and that their clients are ghosts, the mundane question of how the phantoms pay for their pleasures arises. Perhaps, she muses, the Madame has made a pact with the spirits and, in return for the girls’ favours, she gains free passage into hidden regions. Other spiritualities Ritual is never far away. It emerges, for example, in the voodoo episode (pp. 58-9) but is most vividly seen in the chapter Exaltation when the heroine, in a state of sexual tension is magically transported into a garden where, naked and embracing a herm surmounted with the head of a faun, she is lashed into a state of ecstasy by her Uncle. This episode, with its nudity, scourging and horned god is reminiscent of the purification ceremonies that form part of the initiation into a Gardnerian Wicca Coven. (5) Autobiography Fantasy generally has embedded within it remnants of the author’s experiences with real people in the real world. Inevitably, the reader will identify the unnamed narrator with Colquhoun herself. At least one passage – one suspects more - is autobiographical. This is the passage where she describes an experience of psychic invasion (p. 27 - see Sword of Wisdom, p. 23 for details.). The episode with the young fisherman may also derive from Colquhoun’s own experience. Although the location and identity of the island are not formally revealed, there are hints that it is Corsica. Colquhoun travelled extensively in Corsica in 1936 and 1938, and is known to have had an affair with a local fisherman. One wonders, too, whether the heroine’s vulnerability on a strange island has its roots in the author’s sense of vulnerability, arriving in England as a very young child. If the book is a mask for the author’s own psychological quest, a projection of her own psychological predicament onto that of the narrator, we may note that at the beginning of the book we meet her in a state of incomprehension, caught in an environment that is psychologically and physically unsafe. Although she is surrounded by the trappings of a rich mental life, she is emotionally adrift, lacking a sense of control over her life. However, a promising future awaits. At the conclusion of the novel, reunited with her opulent jewels, she passes through a landscape of luxuriant vegetation, reaches a place where warm fountains fertilize the volcanic soil and sees, in the East, mountain tops ‘touched by the first aural glow’ – a Golden Dawn, no less! Notes 1. Fleenor J.E. (ed) Female Gothic 1983 Montreal, Eden Press. 2. Colquhoun’s memory has let her down. The source of the quotation is The Metamorphosis of Metals, not A Brief Guide to the Celestial Ruby, as she states. Both works are by Eirenaeus Philalethes, the pseudonym of George Starkey, an American who moved to London and died during the Great Plague of 1665. Thanks to John Dorfman for information about Starkey. 3. Different authors give a different numbers of steps, ranging from four to as many as twenty two. For Goose of Hermogenes, Colquhoun used as her model The Twelve Keys by Basil Valentine (1599) in which he described twelve stages. The names of the stages in the chapter headings probably derive from George Ripley’s The Compound of Alchymy (1591) as they do not appear in Valentine’s work. 4. Sword of Wisdom, p. 279. 5. Gardner’s first publication concerning Wicca, Witchcraft Today, did not appear until 1954, a number of years after Colquhoun’s manuscript had been completed. However, his ideas, which leant heavily on those of Crowley, would have been current in occult circles and he claimed to have been initiated into a Coven as early as September 1939.
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