Saturday, 30 October 2010

Hallow & Boo-Bye

I don't do Halloween. Not in the trick-or-treating, dress-uppity, drunken kind of way, anyway. There are so many things wrong with it, and I won't bore you with a rehashed story of the Americanization of a Celtic tradition or my rather sensible theory (if I say so myself) that it should really be 'treat or trick' ('Gimme a treat or else I'll play a trick on you', no?). No, you won't find me scantily clad in haphazard fancy dress (read: an inappropriate Lady Gaga or Dead Nurse costume) on the October-beaten pavements of Glasgow - although I must admit that a friend's friend's idea to transform herself into the devil from the Master and Margarita sounds like my cuppa pumpkin punch. Nah, if you mention Halloween, I say boo-bye and thanks for calling.

Yet there are other festivals and traditions observed around this time of year which inspire evening entertainment these days. Most in-your-facely, there's All Saints and All Souls, an opportunity to think of those who have passed away before us. And even without religious inclinations, the music, art and poetry inspired by people whose spirits haunt our lives long after they have moved on can make rainy, windy evenings ever so snuggle-up spookier. Yeats has the right inclination and adds some refreshing spirit of the alcoholic kind to the scene, so be my guest and picture it:

'Tis All Souls Night and the great Christ Church Bell,
And many a lesser bell, sound through the room,
For it is now midnight;
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come,
For it is a ghost's right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.
[...]
W.B. Yeats, All Soul's Night (1928)

W. B. Yeats published this poem in his collection The Tower, a volume heavily influenced by his interest in the occult. As a young man, Yeats tried his turn-of-the-century soul at a variety of occult traditions: Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, the Hermetic Order and anything else that made sense to him who had grown up in an Ireland marked by folklore, myths and confusing political times, and who had moved to a London on the brink of Modernism amidst all sorts of uncertainties.

In 1890 he finally joined the Order of the Golden Dawn and found himself in the good company of many a brilliant artist and intellectual, among them Oscar Wilde's wife Constance, writer Algernon Blackwood and, eventually, the master of a troubled existence Aleister Crowley. Incidentally, here's someone who liked to play dress-up. A lot. But don't let's go there. At all.
Aleister Crowley/Frieda Harris, Thoth Tarot
Trump XV "The Devil"

What united Yeats and Crowley (though they could not stand each other's guts) was the Tarot. Yeats had been introduced to the Tarot, its symbolism and skrying techniques along his path from novice to master within the Order, like any other adept. Crowley went beyond the mere understanding and use of the deck and designed his own set of Tarot cards, which have a disturbing history: the poor artist recruited by Crowley, Frieda Harris, had to interpret Crowley's inspiration into pictures. He talked in trance (or under the influence or substances stronger than muscatel), and she drew with beautiful colours, undoubtedly diluted with some blood and tears. Much like a gruntled diner who describes a taste sensation to a chef and then finds the latter's creation not quite what he imagined, Crowley sent Harris back to the kitchen, er, drawing board. Again and ditto. It therefore took Lady Harris several years to finish, but the result is still stunning (see above).

Crowley was not the only one to create a new version of a Tarot set - far from it! Let me introduce you to Adam McLean's Tarot site, a branch of his Alchemy Website: Adam is collecting and blogging about Tarot decks from all walks of life, all corners of the world and with all levels of artistic sophistication. I might return sometime soon to tell you more about the history of Tarot cards. And like the history of alchemy, it is a fascinating, haunting and wonderful tale indeed.
Penelope Cline's Wild Green Chagallian Tarot,

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