Beads from a Glass Rosary

A Spear Dipped in Poppy Juice?

Charles Cameron


Lugh, the sun god of Irish mythology, has a spear which is so fierce for battle that it fights of its own accord -- and which Lugh keeps immersed in a bowl of poppy juice when there is no fighting to be done, this being the only way to calm its blood lust.

The rational twentieth century mind doesn't know what to make of this tale of a spear dipped in poppy juice: a historian of weapons might give it a passing footnote, but almost nobody, I think, would suppose that such a spear might have existed in ancient Ireland in the way in which Uzis now inhabit in Los Angeles. And yet it does make its own kind of sense -- once you put the spear back into its context, so that it is no longer just a weapon, but also part of a story... Opium, after all, which derives from the poppy, is certainly an appropriate tincture to set blood lust to rest.

A spear so eager for blood that it must be tranquilized in poppy juice has its own unreasonable reasons for doing so, we might say, and follows its own imperturbable logic: a story telling logic.

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That's the logic I'd like to explore in this column. I call this kind of logic "Mythologic", but in truth it is more than that: it is the logic of dreams and myths and folk and fairy tales and miracles and menace and magic... And I'd like to explore it, issue by issue, in this column, in terms of "mythologems" -- small nuggets of myth that carry incredible power packed into a very small space. Pearls, if you like. Beads from my rosary...

Think, for a moment, about Narcissus, who stares at his own reflection in a pool, and is loved by Echo... That's a mythologem, right there. And it too has its own delicate and imperturbable logic: because "echo" is to sound what "reflection" is to sight... When we tell the story of Echo and Narcissus, of course, we most likely don't focus in on the connection between echo and reflection, because the story is a love story about a boy who is self-obsessed and the girl who can't catch his attention. But it's right there in the fabric of the story... reflection... echo... echo... reflection...

Or think about all the folk tales that include an episode where death -- usually in the form of an old woman -- sits at the head of your bed. I first heard this motif in an old Russian folk tale called "The Soldier and Death", which my father used to read to me as a child in Arthur Ransom's wonderful translation: but like so many mythic and folk motifs, it crops up in all sorts of places, and if you turn to p 296 of Le Roy Ladurie's *Love, Death, and Money in the Pays D'Oc*, you'll even find a little diagram that shows you how to cheat death -- and no, I'm not going to give away that secret here!

Myths and folk tales are full of small details that have a larger resonance, and our story telling and role playing can only be the richer as we come to know more of them: because the logic of myth is also the logic of the imagination...

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Let's probe a little more deeply. We can, I think, easily find two ways in which Lugh's spear can make sense to us. And both involve "reading" Lugh's spear not as a literal reality but as metaphor.

We can suppose that Lugh's spear expresses a philosophical insight: that what we regard as the inanimate realm is in fact animate; that matter is imbued with spirit; that our human consciousness, like our human body, is the outcome of a long evolutionary process; that we are children of the living earth. But all this can sound a little too "spiritual" and trite: what we are dealing with in this mythologem is, after all, blood lust and addictive psychopharmacology, not friendly trees and whimsical clouds. So it can also show us that there is a "dark side" to pantheism.

Alternatively, and perhaps more realistically, we can see the image as a representation of forces at work within human psychology: a blood thirst so strong that only an opiated sleep can contain it. Lugh's spear represents Lugh's own blood lust: and this mythologem -- this myth in seed form, if you will -- can then remind us, for example, that widespread use of opiates and other tranquilizers often masks a no less widespread anger.

These two insights, the one philosophical and the other psychological, are certainly present in the story of Lugh. Yet the story is more than the two ideas. It is greater than the entire set of Freudian analytic interpretations that could be placed on it, and greater even than the set of Jungian amplifications that might be added to it. It is enchanting. And it is almost mathematical in its precision, as works of imaginative genius so often are. It is like a small and elegant equation in what one nineteenth century writer aptly termed Mythematics.

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Myth: Math. One of the principal aspects of mythologic, as indeed of mathematics, is symmetry: the balance of complementary opposites. And the converse, the complementary of Lugh's spear must surely be Sir Kenelm Digby's "Powder of Sympathy", which had the virtue that when it was applied to a sword or other weapon that had caused a wound, it cured the wound.

Again, what we have here is a small kernel of mythic thinking: a salve that cures a wound when the weapon, not the patient , is treated -- in much the same way that in shamanism, it's often the healer rather than the patient who takes the medicine...

Sir Kenelm Digby was a Royalist and a Catholic in the England of Cromwell, imprisoned for his beliefs; he was also a collector of books, manuscripts and recipes; a student of alchemy; an early admirer of Sir Thomas Browne; a correspondent of Descartes and Fermat; an influential atomist precursor of Boyle in chemistry and Newton in physics; and the author of "Two Treatises... In the one of which, the nature of bodies; in the other, the nature of mans soule; is looked into: In way of discovery, of the immortality of reasonable soules" (1644) -- which contains among other things the first major defense in English of Harvey's theory of the circulation of the blood.

In 1657, Digby took the waters at Montpellier in France on account of his poor health, and it was there in Montpellier that he delivered his "Discours fait en une Celebre Assemblee" (published Paris, 1658), in which he first discussed the Powder of Sympathy. Sir William Osler, the preeminent physician and medical bibliophile, possessed seven different editions of this work.

And the Powder itself? It consisted of a strong solution of vitriol in rainwater, much improved by drying in the sun, and mixed with gum tragacanth.

Role playing note: even if you've already prepared the powder, you will still need to capture the sword...

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Poppy juice to keep a spear from wounding, vitriol in rainwater to heal such wounds as swords or spears may cause... I offer you Lugh's Spear and Digby's Powder, then, as two ideas from the realm of myth and magic that are worthy of your meditations -- and the first two beads in my glass rosary.


First published in Vol 1 # 0 of "Vision Quest" Magazine, edited by Mitchell J. Gross, published by Visionary Publishing, 45 Valentines Lane, Old Brookville, NY 11545. For further information, email mjg@io.com, go to Visionary Games Crossroads, or call 516-626-3500. Copyright (c) 1995 by Mitchell J. Gross. All rights reserved.


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