Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Consult the Oracle

My grandfather, I’ve been told, was something of a magician. At any rate, he left behind him a substantial collection of occult books. Unfortunately, I never saw this collection: when he died, my parents (not from any motive of disapproval, but simply because they were tired, and had had enough of dealing with his possessions) disposed of the whole lot to a bookseller.

            Or almost the whole lot. Because, as in all the best fairy tales, one book survived. And – of course – when I was about ten years old, I found it, hidden amongst all kinds of clutter in a kind of attic, the room next to my bedroom. It’s on the desk in front of me as I write, a battered old volume called Consult the Oracle, or, How to Read the Future. Could there possibly be a more alluring title for a child to discover? I still feel a certain thrill as I look at it now, despite its desperate physical condition. The spine, which time has darkened almost to black, has split and nearly fallen off. The hard front cover (there was clearly never a dust-jacket) is a shiny, grubby brown, darkened at the edges with finger-marks. It shows an amateurish drawing of a priestess swathed in voluminous robes, perched atop a three-legged chair – no doubt the famous ‘tripod’ of the Delphic Oracle. She raises one crudely-drawn hand, whilst the other clutches a branch of some shrub: perhaps meant for laurel or olive, though it looks nothing like either. And from a hole in the dais under her chair emanate curly wreathes of smoke: those vapours from the depths of the earth which were supposed to inspire the oracle’s prophecies. Alongside her, to remind us of practicalities, is the book’s price: one shilling (that’s five new pence, or around six cents). In March 1901 when Grandfather bought the book that would have been cheap, but not absolutely dirt cheap. I know when he bought it, incidentally, because there’s the date, under pencilled initials, on a flyleaf which has now completely detached itself and lies loose inside the cover.

            The title page enlarges on what’s to be found within. ‘A GUIDE TO THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS,’ it promises, ‘AND TO OTHER MATTERS MAGICAL AND MYSTERIOUS: BEING THE WISDOM OF PAST TIMES AND PRESENT TIMES AS TO WHAT WILL SURELY COME TO PASS’. Who could resist that? As a ten-year-old, I certainly couldn’t. When you’re a child, the future is everything, a box of delights. Now, in my seventy-first year, I have a different idea of ‘what will surely come to pass’ and it’s not all good. Never mind. The contents page listed possibilities beyond my wildest dreams. And indeed, dreams were where the book began. The first chapter was ‘We Tell the Meaning of your Dreams’, and it started with some basic tips: for example, a warning that ‘the gift of dreaming with truth is withdrawn from those who either tell as dreams what they never dreamt, or refuse to tell their dreams at all.’ That was worth remembering. Also, ‘Morning dreams are more reliable than those of any other time.’ And certainly, I’ve often found those the most vivid; though ‘the most important dream of the week’ is, apparently, the one you dream on Friday night. And above all, ‘dreams are interpreted by symbolism. The most earnest and best-informed student of the symbolical will be the most reliable interpreter of dreams.’

            There followed an alphabetical list of dream images, with interpretations – some of them surprising. If you dream of an anchor, for example, then ‘one of whose affections you are doubtful really cares for you’; and to dream of riding a bicycle ‘means that for some years you will have constant change’. A stopped clock means a dangerous illness; and ‘Should you dream of catching fish it is a sure sign of bad luck.’ More predictably, ‘To hear whispering in a dream means that many people are talking ill of you’. Some of the topics seemed a little outré; would I ever dream, for example, of a tortoise (‘you will by plodding on reach a high position in life’)? Or of watching a woman make pies (‘Your experience in love is likely to prove disastrous’)? Six decades later, I’m not sure that either of these has yet cropped up. But the details didn’t really matter. What counted was the sense that dreams were worth attention, that they had meaning. I began to recall my dreams purposefully, and to reflect on them. A few years later, in a local library, I found a book called The Interpretation of Dreams and borrowed it, expecting a more reliable guide to prophecy. It turned out to be by Sigmund Freud; it introduced me to psychoanalysis, which has played a valuable part in my life.

            But there was much more to Consult the Oracle than dreams. Among the other chapters were ‘Lucky and Unlucky Numbers’; ‘Fortunes told by Cards’; ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; ‘Fairy Folk’; ‘The Wonders of the Divining Rod’ and many more. Almost everything, it seemed, could have hidden meanings. The chapter on cartomancy offered what was probably a very old system for reading fortunes with ordinary playing-cards; in 1901, few people outside esoteric organisations had ever heard of Tarot cards. I didn’t get far with it: memorising the meanings of fifty-two cards, many of them apparently quite arbitrary, was too difficult (‘Five of Hearts: Unexpected news, generally of a good kind; Four of Hearts: An unfaithful friend. A secret betrayed…’). But it aroused my curiosity, and when I was sixteen I finally got a Tarot deck – which I’ve used ever since.

            More immediately valuable were the chapters called ‘We May Judge Character by the Hands and Fingers’ and ‘Fortune Read in the Palm of the Hand’. I studied my own hands closely. Easy enough to find the Life Line and even the lines of Head and Heart. But where was ‘the Plain or Triangle of Mars’? And what about the ‘Mount of Luna, or the Moon’? Not too worried about such minutiae, I scrutinised other people’s hands too. Somehow, without ever quite disentangling all the details, I began to develop a sense of how the hand, taken as a whole, with its fingers and wrist, as well as the maze of lines on the palm, spoke of a whole person. And a few years later, at teenage parties, what an asset palmistry turned out to be! What better passport could there be to sitting with a girl in a quiet corner, or halfway up the stairs, holding her hand and solemnly discussing her character, ambitions and dreams?

            The chapter on ‘Fairy Folk’ explained that

“The Land of Faerie is situated somewhere underground, and there the royal fairies hold their court. In their palaces all is beauty and splendour. Their pageants and processions are far more magnificent than any that Eastern sovereigns could get up or poets devise. They ride upon milk-white steeds. Their dresses, of brilliant green, are rich beyond conception; and when they mingle in the dance, or move in procession among the shady groves, or over the verdant lawns of the earth, they are entertained with delicious music, such as mortal lips or hands never could emit or produce.”

But apparently fairies would only be found where the grass grew ‘undisturbed by man’. ‘Once it is ploughed the spell is gone and they change their abode’. An old Scottish proverb was quoted: ‘Where the scythe cuts, and the sock [ploughshare] rives, hae done wi’ fairies and bee bykes!’ Bee bykes, it seemed, were nests of wild bees. And indeed, Consult the Oracle had a whole chapter on Bees: it was called ‘Bees Know More Than People Think’, a suggestion I still find very plausible. ‘Bees’, the Oracle explained, ‘are lovers of peace and will not thrive with a quarrelsome family.’ It also warned that ‘if there is a death in the family,’ the bees must be told, or they would leave: the correct formula was said to be ‘Little brownie, little brownie, [such a person] is dead.’ Once this was properly done, ‘the bees begin to hum by way of showing their consent to remain.’ It was also wise to ‘put a little sugar at the hive’s entrance on Christmas Eve’. ‘At the stroke of midnight’ the bees would come out to eat it. By contrast, some passages showed the casual cruelty of the Victorians: ‘Not to catch and kill the first butterfly seen in spring is unlucky’. That reads shockingly now; and is surely the exact opposite of the truth.

            The Oracle had a good deal to say about animals generally. Cats born in the month of May, it warned, ‘are good for catching neither mice nor rats.’ On the other hand, ‘The best mousers are cats that have been stolen.’ Did anyone truly ever steal a cat to improve its talents at pest-control? It seemed unlikely. More plausible were the notions that ‘Horses are able to see spirits’, and that it is lucky for a horse to have a white star on its forehead.

            It would take too long even to hint at all the wonders the Oracle had to offer. There was ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; as well as ‘The Mysteries of Spiritualism’, ‘Taking a Hand at Table-Turning’ and even an introduction to astrology: ‘There is much to be Learned from the Heavenly Bodies’. I could go on; but this is enough. Foolish and simple-minded much of the book certainly is, as I gradually realised. But it told me something important: that the world round me was not just a world of material objects, nor a world merely governed by meaningless chance and physical laws. It showed that there was meaning and mystery in everything; and that on the margins of mainstream thought – the kind of thinking we were taught at school – there were intuitions, dreams, visions of other and deeper things. Consult the Oracle showed me that, as the poet Paul Eluard neatly put it, ‘There is indeed another world – but it is in this one’. The Oracle helped me make the transition from the fluid, metamorphic, non-rational world of childhood, into the partially (very partially!) rational and informed grown-up world – that world in which so many people are encouraged to close down their intuitive, psychic and imaginative faculties – without losing the sense of wonder and mystery. Some people – the naturally spiritual ones – may not need such support but I did; and I was lucky to find it.

            Having inherited Consult the Oracle – accidentally, as it were – from my grandfather, it would be good to report that I am passing it on to one of my own grandchildren. But that’s impossible. For – again as in a fairy tale – now that its work is done, the book is crumbling to dust. In writing this essay I have turned many of the pages, and each as I turned it has broken away from the binding. So acidic is the paper that the leaves are brown and brittle at the margins. The edges of the pages flake off as they are touched. Soon the book will be nothing but a heap of fragments. Everything has its season, and this book’s season is passed. But it came to me at the right time, and I’m grateful. I consulted the oracle, and it spoke.

[This essay first appeared in QUEST, Journal of the Theosophical Society in America, and is given here by permission.]

A RHYME FOR THE TAROT

I’ve often felt frustrated that, although I’ve worked with the Tarot on and off since I was 16, I’ve never been able to remember the order of the Trumps. A couple of weeks ago, I thought of making up a rhyme to help recall the numbers.

So I did it. It’s just doggerel but others might find it useful, so here it is. I happened to be using the Rider Waite pack. Then I remembered that in the old Marseille pack, Justice and the Strength/Force are swapped around. So I made another version to fit the Marseille pack.

Anyway, here they are. First the rhyme for the Rider Waite pack; then some Notes and Comments; and finally the rhyme for the Marseille pack. One or the other should hopefully fit other packs/decks as well.

Some of the Rider Waite Tarot cards

A RHYME FOR THE TAROT
Rider Waite Pack
 
One’s the Magician, beginning his quest;
Two the High Priestess, a cross on her breast;
Three is the Empress, a goddess you see,
And Four is the Emperor, his orb at his knee.
The Hierophant’s Five, whose good prayers we receive,
And Six are the Lovers, fair Adam and Eve.
Seven’s the Chariot, pursuing its path,
And Eight is for Strength, who can tame the lion’s wrath.
Nine is the Hermit, who lives far from town,
And Ten is the Wheel, where we’re tossed up and down.
Eleven’s for Justice, he’s strict but he’s fair,
And Twelve the Hanged Man, with one foot in the air.
Thirteen’s an old friend, the black flag is his sign,
And Temperance Fourteen, adding water to wine.
Fifteen is the Devil, with souls on a chain,
And Sixteen’s the Tower: destruction and pain!
Seventeen is the Star, pouring spiritual light,
And Eighteen’s the Moon, bayed by dogs in the night.
Nineteen is the Sun, with the children at play,
And Twenty’s for Judgement, the Earth’s final day.
Twenty-one, the World Soul dances graceful and free,
And Zero’s the Fool: could that be you or me?

NOTES:

1. Yes, I know the ‘quest’ is ours, rather than the Magician’s; but I wanted to give a sense of ‘setting out’ on our journey. And after all, surely every magician ought to be on a quest?

2. The ‘cross’ is obvious in the Rider Waite version. In the Marseille, it’s just two crossed straps, so maybe not a real ‘cross’ at all. Also she’s dressed as a female Pope. So the Marseille version could be either ‘Two’s the Popess in her triple crown drest’ or – drawing on the medieval legend of the female Pope – ‘Two is Pope Joan, in her triple crown drest’ (which I like best of all).

3. I associate the Empress, who looks like a bountiful fertility figure, with the Triple Goddess. But as the line ends with ‘you see’, you can put in some other words here if you like!

4. It would have been nice to say ‘his sword at his knee’ but in the picture it’s a round thing like an orb. For the Marseille pack, I’ve adapted to match the picture: ‘his shield at his knee’.

5. ‘Good prayers we receive’ is slightly awkward, but I couldn’t find a better phrase; still, if he prays for us, then we are at least receiving the benefit of his prayers. For the Marseille pack, I’ve changed ‘The Hierophant’ to ‘the Pope’, and altered the words to rhyme with the line about Force.

6. Rider Waite makes the Lovers definitely Adam and Eve. The Marseille pack has Cupid overhead, and the young man turning away from Dame Philosophy in her laurel wreath to go with the lady. Oh foolish chap! Or maybe not. I’ve changed the line accordingly.

8, 11, 12, various changes of wording to fit the differences between packs. The Hanged Man in all packs looks perfectly happy, and seems to be an acrobat. That doesn’t stop him from standing for an uncomfortable betwixt-and-between situation if he comes up in a reading. Even an acrobat doesn’t want to spend all his time upside down. But nor does he deserve the sinister reputation he has amongst non-Tarot people.

13. In the Rider Waite pack, Death has a black flag. For the simpler Marseille design, I’ve said ‘and the skull is his sign’.

15. In Rider Waite, the souls are clearly on chains. In Marseille, it looks like ropes, so I’ve changed accordingly. Choose whichever you prefer.

19. The Rider Waite card has a single child, on horseback. You could say ‘With the child who’s at play’ if you want to be purist about it. I think ‘children at play’ is nicer. As there’s a low wall in the Marseille picture, I suspect the children are actually Romulus and Remus, in which case it’s all going to end badly, but never mind.

21. I suppose strictly it should be ‘world’s final day’ as other planets would presumably be judged, not just earth. But I wanted to save ‘world’ for the next card, so too bad! You could say ‘our Reckoning Day’ or something, but I prefer it as it is.

A few of the Marseille Tarot cards

And now here’s the Marseille version:

A RHYME FOR THE TAROT:
Marseille Version

 One’s the Magician, beginning his quest;
Two is Pope Joan, in her triple crown drest;
Three is the Empress, a goddess you see,
And Four is the Emperor, his shield at his knee.
Five is the Pope, who can pray for our souls,
And Six are the Lovers, whom Cupid controls.
Seven’s the Chariot, so drive it with care,
And Eight is for Justice, she’s strict but she’s fair.
Nine is the Hermit, who lives far from town,
And Ten is the Wheel, where we’re tossed up and down.
Eleven’s for Force, who can tame the wild beast,
And Twelve the Hanged Man – not perturbed in the least!
Thirteen’s an old friend, and the skull is his sign,
And Temperance Fourteen, adding water to wine.
Fifteen is the Devil, with souls on a rope,
At Sixteen the Tower falls, but don’t lose all hope!
Seventeen is the Star, pouring spiritual light,
And Eighteen’s the Moon, bayed by dogs in the night.
Nineteen is the Sun, and the child who’s at play,
And Twenty’s for Judgement, the Earth’s final day.
Twenty-one, the World Soul dances graceful and free,
And Zero’s the Fool: could that be you or me?
 

Please feel free to share this, disseminate it, improve it, pass it on, use it for any purpose you like, only don’t copyright it to yourself, please, even in an adapted version. Thank you!

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Linda Ryle’s Paintings

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A visitor admires ‘Show Me the Moon’ (for the book cover, scroll down & look right!)

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Roman and Egyptian art and artefacts inspire elements in some of the paintings

Coming face to face with Linda Ryle’s painting ‘Show Me the Moon’ a few days ago was a shock: I’ve been so used to seeing it as a 13 by 17 cm cover image on my book Luna Park that I’d forgotten quite how big it really is. Meeting it again in this new exhibition at the Heaton Cooper Studio, Grasmere, was a pleasant surprise.

The painting – even more fascinating at its full size, naturally – draws you in hypnotically, with its affectionate yet slightly eerie rapport between woman and cat, and the tiny glimpse of the new moon in a limpid, radiant sky.

The sense of mystery, of magical meanings only half-revealed, is typical of Linda Ryle’s work (she’s also know by her married name as Linda Cooper), and this retrospective exhibition, Time Regained: 1975 – 2016 reveals these qualities as connecting elements running through some quite diverse work.

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Linda Ryle in conversation at the opening

There are landscapes, figure paintings (with animals) , still lifes – often incorporating ancient Egyptian or Roman sculpture and other artefacts – and most recently detailed, almost trompe-l’oeil studies of little corners of domestic interiors: a spice cupboard; a flight of old, deeply-worn stone steps; a crucible burning with fierce flame and backed by black smoke.

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Hand-painted belts – sought after by ’70s celebs in the King’s Road

There’s even a display of the wonderfully vivid and imaginative belts, hand-painted with animal forms, which Linda supplied to a King’s Road fashion boutique in the 1970s, and which were acquired by (amongst others) Elton John, Bianca Jagger and Britt Eklund.

 

What connects all of these works, along with a love of detail and an evocative use of colour, is a sense of symbolism, of contemplative and often disquieting meaning hidden within each image. It’sa world not unlike that of Leonora Carrington, who similarly loved to blend pagan imagery with encounters of animals and humans who had a more than normal rapport with one another. I’m inclined to think Linda deserves a place in the rich but elusive category of female surrealists, though the subtlety of her work is far from the simply bizarre or aggressively disruptive effects we might associate with mainstream (usually male) surrealism. Linda Ryle has a deep interest in Jungian psychology, and her work was exhibited last year at the Association of Jungian Analysts in London.

 

Strikingly, to me the most powerful works were the most recent. The meticulous representations of details of her eighteenth-century house in Cockermouth, such as a staircase leading down into a cellar, are extraordinarily suggestive: the apparently ordinary becoming a powerful symbol of something psychologically profound and (I think) more than a little disturbing. These are beautiful images; but don’t be surprised if you feel the hairs on your neck rising a little. In Linda’s work, the everyday becomes the slightly uncanny. It’s a remarkable achievement.

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A glimpse of some of the quiet but intense and deeply suggestive later work

Time Regained: an exhibition of past and present work by the painter Linda Ryle runs at the Heaton Cooper Studio, Grasmere, from July 14 until the end of October. Details from 015394 35280.

St Patrick’s Cave

 

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St Patrick’s Cave: interior, with view out to sea

Just back from Anglesey, where we stayed near Camaes Bay with our grandchildren. There’s something magical about Anglesey: a strange, subtle and beautiful atmosphere that feels as if you’ve entered an enchanted Otherworld.

Much of the countryside looks dull from a car; but get out and walk a hundred yards and you’re in fields and woods that seem out of another era. It’s as if nothing has changed for centuries, and you can just step into it. I always find it very inspiring for poetry too.

Having meadows and seacliffs right next to each other is wonderful too. You go from sheets of bluebells and blossoming hawthorn thickets to sheer cliffs with lichen-covered rocks and clumps of seapinks, with a sheer drop to the sandy beach,  in a mere footstep or two.

St Patrick's Cave Anglesey

The cave mouth is the dark shape left of centre. The Dalai Lama, visiting a few years ago, said it was the most peaceful place on earth!

This time we stayed in an old house beside a church built in the mid-5th century. Just round the corner and down the cliff face was St Patrick’s cave – where the saint is said to have taken refuge after shipwreck. It looked precarious but I soon found out that it was easy enough to climb down the cliff into the cave. A wonderful place to meditate! And, as local legend says women used to go to a sacred spirng there to wash their faces and become more beautiful, it seems likely that in preChristian times it was sacred to a Goddess – no doubt Bride, the Celtic Goddess of springs and wells. A magical place!

 

Lance Cousins (1942-2015)

Today I must pay tribute to my dear friend and teacher, Lance Cousins, who died in Oxford on 14 March.

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Lance Cousins (foreground) with his teacher, Nai Boonman (behind)

 

Lance was the most remarkable person I’ve ever met. A Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher, he was an unforgettable character and a constant source of amazement, amusement, wisdom and inspiration. Think of Gandalf in a green jumper with a mug of coffee in his hand and you will have some idea.

I first met Lance when I joined the Manchester University Buddhist Society in 1975, soon after arriving to work at the University. I had noticed him before I knew who he was: a quiet, bearded chap who came into the senior common room looking very alert and moving quietly: there was something cat-like in the way he padded about.

Once I joined the Society I realised that he was its motivator: he had taught Charles Shaw, who was my own first teacher in meditation, and Lance himself came to all the Society’s weekly talks by visiting speakers, and afterwards would join in fascinating discussions which ranged far and wide, on all kinds of things, philosophical and personal. He was ready with apposite, amusingly-expressed advice for anyone who had a problem but he could also quote from the ancient texts.

He also became the focus of a group of friendly academics who would spend hours in the Common Room debating everything in the world over coffee: a group of true philosophers that tended to include Harry Lesser, John Kane, Philip Alexander, Tony James, Norman Calder and others. The flow of ideas, questions, knowledge and humour was marvellous.

Over the years that followed I came to know Lance as an incomparable teacher. The meditation he taught, the stimulus of his teaching, and the example of his presence completely changed my life and gave it a new focus.

He was mainly a teacher of Samatha, a traditional method of meditation using the in-and-out breath as an object, which he had learned from his own Thai teacher, Nai Boonman. But he was far from limiting himself to ‘Buddhism by the Book’: he’d been trained in the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky tradition; he was an expert astrologer who drew up a birth chart for me and many others; he knew a great deal about the Kabbala and encouraged his meditation students to learn about that as well. He was also very well-read, and could discuss almost any author in English literature and, of course, most fantasy and science fiction of which he read a great deal (and I believe wrote some himself).

In due course, as well as supporting and stimulating the Manchester University Buddhist Society, Lance was the main mover in establishing the Samatha Centre (later the Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation) in Chorlton, and then, with other senior teachers and Trustees, the national Samatha Centre, Greenstreete, in the Welsh Borders.

At the same time he ran study groups of Buddhist texts either at his house or at the Centre, and these meetings, often going on until well after midnight, were endlessly illuminating. Lance had a fresh, humorous and profound angle on everything, and he would also listen carefully and give full attention to what others had to say. In fact he insisted that others had their say! Of course we didn’t always agree, and at times I found him infuriating! All part of the fun and the learning process.

He moved to Oxford some twenty years ago and after that I saw less of him but whenever I visited we would have long and happy chats about all sorts of things, and I would always get wise insight into whatever problem, difficulty or stage of life I might be going through. Lance’s kindness and learning increased over the years and somehow he seemed to grow older, not just physically, but in wisdom as well. It was as if he’d started off six years older than me but ended twenty-six years older. Spiritually I have to say that he was my father. I will never meet anyone like him, and it is daunting to realise that now he is gone and we must do what we can to go on with the work, or some aspect of it, without him.

There are no words to express my gratitude and I know hundreds of others feel the same.

This is a rough and hasty tribute but the best I can manage at present. For more information, photos and tributtes, go to www.samatha.org.uk/lance-cousins