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Friday, July 14, 2023

Street Lamps as Liminal Spirit Spaces


“She began to walk forward, crunch-crunch over the snow and through the wood towards the other light. In about ten minutes she reached it and found it was a lamppost. As she stood looking at it, wondering why there was a lamppost in the middle of a wood and wondering what to do next, she heard a pitter patter of feet coming towards her. And soon after that a very strange person stepped out from among the trees into the light of the lamppost.”


-         C. S. Lewis, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe


The lamp post in the woods is a clear image representing Narnia in the minds of Anglophone readers. It seems like a small detail, but it's important enough that it is one of the two clear symbols or events linking the first book, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, with the penultimate book, The Magician's Nephew. In the latter, we see the creation of Narnia. On Earth, the events surrounding Narnia's birth are carried forward by planting seeds from a Narnian tree, producing a magical fruit tree that eventually becomes the fated wardrobe. While in Narnia, its state as a newly created world allows a bit of metal ripped from a lamppost on Earth by a giantess to implant in the freshly formed soil and grow into a lamppost. This lamppost, a piece of Earth, is the first Narnian thing seen by Lucy as she enters Narnia. Lucy is the first human in Narnia since the events of its creation. Her return sets in motion the beginning of the restoration of Narnia from the damage and corruption caused by the White Queen, herself the giantess who entered Narnia at its creation and who planted the metal which became the lamppost.

          The gateway through which Lucy and her siblings enter Narnia is part earthly and part Narnian. The seed of the tree that became the wardrobe came from Narnia, but it grew on Earth. The lamppost, which becomes the guide marker in and out of Narnia, is likewise part earthly and Narnian. The seed of the lamppost came from Earth, but it grew in Narnia. There is a parallelism here based in their liminality.

          But why even include the lamppost? A lamppost does not seem magical or fantastical. It is quotidian in the extreme. An aesthetic is hinted at with the idea that a lamppost is out of place in a forest. Initially, we don't know anything about the forest. We might presume it's magical since it's found in a wardrobe, but nothing indicates that a lamppost is wildly out of place. The events which follow, and what is first seen in the light of the lamppost, begin the unfoldment towards the wondrous as we discover a magical creature revealed in its light. The text does not even indicate that the forest is dark, but the light of the lamppost is where Lucy first clearly sees the faun, Mr. Tumnus.

          This may be because lampposts are, in fact, magical. It may be because lampposts are the sort of magical space in which we expect the revelation of a supernatural figure or a citizen from some other space where spirits and magical beings reside. In the movie posters for The Exorcist, Father Merrin stands bathed in otherworldly light emitting from the room of a possessed child. While the source of the light is a window, some iterations of the image leave that unclear. In almost all versions of it, he very clearly stands under a lamppost, despite that not being the source of light. For most people, the priest arriving under the lamppost, bathed in light in the dark night, is the image they associate with Father Merrin.

          Similarly, flickering streetlamps, insects massing under streetlamps, or streetlamps buzzing and flicking on or off are common elements of our visual language that indicate the presence of the supernatural in films and television.

          I got to thinking about the magical liminality of the streetlamp last night while looking at one through my window. It's a streetlamp that I see routinely. This one is immediately visible from most windows on the western side of my house. As I watched the lamp, it had a strikingly magical ambiance. The magical quality of the streetlamp was often evident. Many streetlamps convey that sense that a magical space resides underneath them, and some are even ingrained in my mind as such spaces.

          Looking at the lamp, I wondered if other people had thought about or noticed this when considering the nature of street lamps. Do other people view them as liminal spaces or spaces for magic to occur? What symbolism or properties do people accord to them? As these questions passed through my mind, I wondered if I could explain how or why they were magical. I wondered if people had encounters or experiences in the small round spotlight spaces beneath them. I pondered about ways to engage them and if anyone had methods for doing so. I have only really considered them in conjunction with crossroads. There are two crossroads that feel particularly magic that are routine parts of my life, and in both cases, their streetlamp contributes dramatically to the presence of the space.

          My reflection didn't settle the answers. It asked questions and considered possibilities. I would love to see people discuss some of these ideas and their experiences. In that spirit, I'll share some of my own thinking.

          We don't think of lamps in houses as something liminal and rarely as something magical. In particular spaces, when they cast light in specific ways, something might seem otherworldly about a lamplit area. It isn't the norm, though.

          Streetlamps present this quality more consistently. In a house, we're dealing with a limited space. That space might, at the outset, be darker than the space outside. The stars and the moon provide some illumination outdoors. In addition to streetlamps, we have people's porch lights, and the light spill from their windows. Inside a house with no lights on or with the power off, particularly if the windows are drawn, there is much less small ambient light. The darkness may be more palpable than outside, and you have a sense of an enclosed space filled with things throughout that darkness.

          Considering the darkness of inside spaces, they should be primed to feel like magical or wild spaces when hidden in total darkness. They don't. They might feel scary or creepy, but a lived-in space does not create the same sense as a wild space just because it's dark. If anything, you feel frustration over the possibility of bumping into things or the urge to find a light. When you're outside, even if there is some visibility, the darkness feels more extensive. You're in an open space. You can't illuminate throughout the full confines of the space because there are no confines. You're probably less familiar with the space. A broader range of things and people could be lurking in the darkness than there would be in your unlit home. The sense of the unknown and the dangers of a wild space become a more imminent part of your awareness, even if you're not in a place that would be a wild space during the day. Wild spaces aren't necessarily liminal, but they are magical. There is room for the unknown and unexpected, and so there are possibilities for things to come into being out from the darkness without hindrance or expectation. Wild spaces also frequently have more otherworldly life than human spaces, as it is often more comfortable for such beings to be more active away from the hustle and bustle of human influence. The cover of darkness spreads that potential into otherwise tamed human spaces.

          This might seem like a reflection or meditation on the darkness of night, unattached from anything more tangible than a mental exercise. Still, there are reasons to consider the power of darkness to shape the tame into the wild. Each of us has likely had times when we encounter an outside space that seems unusually dark. We have experienced spaces that seem somehow different from the rest of what we're experiencing as we walk around at night. These spaces are often at some area that is an entry or exit to some slightly separate location, or near a crossroads, or a tree line. Sometimes they're near a structure that isn't in use or is less regularly in use, or they may be near water. They're spaces that have their own sense of liminality or the unknown. Outside of those spaces which seem specially othered, we have all also likely had moments in the night where being outside, even for something brief or routine, has left us inexplicably feeling like something could be there lurking. It might be in a place where we are entirely comfortable in the day and where we might have caution but not typically concern in the night, but without cause in a given moment, it suddenly feels like there could be something hidden or simply that we shouldn't be there. This is a relatively typical human experience. It indicates but doesn't necessarily prove what I'm saying about the darkness falling and creating wild spaces.

          History and folklore add to this idea. Twilight times, the liminal temporal spaces between day and night, are often associated with the fair folk and the perception of spirits. The winter months, where darkness is more prevalent, are associated with increased spirit activity. The Deipnon, when the moon is gone, and the sky is a deeper dark, is when the restless dead are believed to roam. Night herself was one of the first beings from which other Titanic powers stirred and took form. Night holds within itself the potential for things to be emergent from her darkness. The darkness of night is associated with bringing the supernatural closer to human awareness.

          As we have explored, the darkness in a house and the darkness in the world outside of one's house are different in quality. The relationship of lamps with that darkness also differs. In a home, individual rooms form small areas with clear boundaries. There are walls to reflect light and contain the dispersion of that light. A lamp or an overhead light may dispel the darkness in a space entirely. We can turn night into day easily in our homes with the flick of a switch. We can't do this outside. Outside, we can only carve away at the darkness with small pieces of light. That light highlights the darkness around it, as the darkness defines the light. There is a liminal quality to the space defined by the light. It is an exterior space, but it is defined away from the collective space around it by the concentration of light. It is created by light but is noticeable because of darkness. It is a space with a boundary, but it is permeable, and the light that creates it glows diffusely beyond that boundary. By its nature, it is a depiction of the quality of liminality.

          The magical quality inherent in this visual of light scratching against an immersive and broad darkness is one most humans recognize. We have had forms of outdoor lighting to deal with the dangers of walking around in the dark since at least the first millennium BCE in various places. Still, modern people think of the era where it became exceedingly prominent, the "Gaslight Era" or "Gaslamp Era," when we think of the romanticized image of lights illuminating historical cities. The idea that lighting developed with the glow of gaslight is so pervasive that people once circulated memes saying that the Catholic Church forbade gaslight in Vatican City because setting up lights to illuminate the darkness flew in the face of God. In actuality, some European cities had laws requiring outdoor lights at roads and intersections as far back as the 15th century, so setting up lights to illuminate the darkness wasn't new. Romans even had a word to describe slaves whose job was lighting outdoor oil lamps. The Vatican government temporarily forbade the lights over environmental and possibly political concerns related to using a foreign gas provider.

          Outdoor lighting was common before the gaslight era, but this is the era of the past in which pre-electric lighting is more familiar to us. As a result, whereas steampunk fiction focuses on alternative histories and developments surrounding the dawn of industrialization and modern technology, another genre focuses on more magical fiction set in that same era. Magical and supernatural fiction set in the backdrop of a fictionalized 19th century is called “Gaslamp” or “Gaslight” Fantasy. The glow of gaslight against the semi-mysterious but not-too-distant past creates an evocative setting for a magical space that seems adjacent to what is real for us but distant enough to seem unbelievable. There is, again, a kind of liminality to that.

          The liminal nature of a fictional context does not make streetlamps liminal spaces. It reflects how the crossover in boundaries between a lit space and a dark space, a wild space and a space impacted by human technology, evokes a sense of magic and the other. The evocation of such a sense also does not prove an actual magical reality to the lamplit regions of the night. Still, it indicates something that inspires us to perceive them as magic. That inspiration could come from an authentic magical nature inherent in, or at least often present in, these spaces.

          Streetlamps being a marker or a maker of a magical space is an interesting thing to consider regarding how and why they are magical. We can explore how that power reflects back into the world through human imagination. To find a useful meaning, we must consider how and why we would engage these spaces. To me, the first thought that arises is the similarity to the experience of noticing the movement of other beings just in the edges of our sight. Shadows of something other slipping into visual awareness at the edges of our attention are one of the modes through which otherworlds express themselves, sometimes in the light but often in the darkness. The feeling of the streetlight space reminds me of the feeling of observing these sorts of spirit movements. They seem like the sort of places that could be prime for that type of observation or for interacting with things that are on the edge of perceptibility already.

          I have frequently written about using lamp invocations to connect with intermediaries and the illumination they can provide in viewing and communicating with the spirit world. Typically, I address this as invoking the spirit through the light of an oil lamp or a candle. The way in which a streetlamp provides illumination and the ability for someone to immerse themselves in that illumination makes them feel like an option for applying that kind of work. The magician could stand bathed in the streetlamp's light and invoke the god of light. Through that conjuration, the magician would aim to stand within the illumination of their intermediary ally. This could be used to see those spirits mentioned above at the periphery of our awareness or to connect specifically with that intermediary. It could also be a precursor to conjuring another specific spirit.

          Regarding conjuring a spirit and immersing ourselves in the power to perceive the spirit world, the streetlight space could be viewed as a physical expression of the nexus point in which spirit communication occurs. Some forms of consecrating space to create the appropriate conditions for interacting with a spirit address the idea of mimicking a liminal space like a crossroads or drawing on the power of a token taken from such a space. Using the streetlight as the physical space of the conjuration would obviate the need for a token because you would be working directly within that liminality. Streetlights can often be found at intersections. A tucked-away intersection would allow you to leverage both the streetlamp and the crossroads, possibly also combining in the lamp invocation.

          These are not statements that are intended to convey methods you should be using or methods I have used. These are ideas I've been kicking around for the last day or two. These possibilities of using this space are examples of spit-balling magical options that seem reasonable and exciting. I would love to see people discuss or try them and post about them, and I'm excited to try some of them myself. I have worked at a crossroads with a streetlight but did not use the light. I have considered using a streetlight as a place to leave offerings adjacent to a crossroads several times. However, I have generally used other crossroads instead and have yet to actively utilize the light as a part of the ritual.

          I think an essential thing to remember when considering something like this is the real and present nature of magic. Magic doesn't stop. Magic isn't something that only developed in the past, so it isn't something that only utilizes old elements. We don't need to change and reinvent magic constantly. We don't need to deconstruct magic and strip away its parts. We don't need to make space for our every impulse, comfort, or convenience and say magic fits itself to whatever we want it to be. We do, in fact, need to be adaptable and engage and explore the world around us. Living magical traditions have frequently had to adjust and find uses for new things they encounter. Sometimes they have to let go of old materials and tools as they become unobtainable and new options which do similar things make their way into the material lexicon of magic. Similarly, as new types of spaces, new types of experiences, and sometimes even new types of technology occur, we can ask ourselves how they fit into the animistic structure of our engagement with the world. This is part of keeping magic real and present such that it is grounded in the reality of our experience instead of the fetishized fantasies of a lost world we might imagine we'd like to live in.

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1 comment:

  1. Street lamps are name "Lampadaire " In French, wich come from the lampads, Hekate's night nymphs...