Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Museum of Forgotten Dreams

The City had changed a great deal in the twenty or more years since I had last been there. The skyline was cluttered with new tower blocks, many providing accommodation for the new tribes of inner city dwellers. Even the great stations had been tarted up, largely obscuring their Victorian heritage; John Betjeman would be turning in his grave, I thought. The people had changed too, but perhaps no more so than modern city dwellers the world over.

The Northern sky was the same, so much cooler in tone than Sydney or Melbourne. Photographs of London buildings, whether masonry, stucco, or concrete, seemed to be soaked in that soothing ultraviolet light that the tourist’s eye could never see. To my eye, at least, the cool summer haze told me that I was in the country of my birth. Perhaps the change I detected was superficial and the old familiar landmarks would soon remove my feelings of alienation and the unease cast by the shadows of the New.

My cut-price accommodation turned out to be on the South Bank, where the crumbling Victorian three story semis had been refurbished to a standard acceptable to the modern tourist. The River was as muddy as ever but the City heart gleamed pleasantly on the opposite shore, promising all the delights of a settlement that had endured for nigh on two millennia.

I knew that the Tate Gallery extension had been recently housed in the old Battersea Power Station. Since I was stuck in Lambeth, it was just over a mile from my lodgings. The weather was fine, so I decided to walk to the new gallery. The morning traffic was noisy and unpleasant and I was tiring a bit by the time I reached Nine Elms Lane, with half a mile or more to go. I could see the four giant chimneystacks in the distance but got lost as Battersea Park Road turned south.

After backtracking and taking a side-road towards the River, I came across a sign fastened to the grimy brick of a faceless wall that towered over me. It read ‘Metropolitan Museum’. The building seemed to be a huge warehouse of some kind but was definitely not the Power Station itself. A little way down the alley, I found a mean looking entrance, with a sign over the door that read ‘Museum’. I wondered if this was some kind of annex to the New Tate, which I thought must be close by.

I went up the steps and pushed on the faded paint of the double doors, which led into a dark passageway, lit only by dim lights hanging on wires from the high ceiling. I thought that such a miserable hallway could have nothing to do with the upmarket chic of the New Tate building, unless it was some kind of annexe or repository; a tradesman’s entrance maybe.

At the end of the dim passage was an old lift with a button for up and a button for down. I decided to go up. The lift rattled down and the door opened to display the old style metal grille but no attendant. Inside there were the same two buttons, so I closed the grille and pressed ‘up’. It seemed very slow for a single destination but it finally got there, stopping with a jerk. I got out to find a similar poorly lit corridor but with several openings onto what were, hopefully, galleries.

The first room contained some very interesting paintings and I was glad that I had taken a detour into what seemed to be a vast and partly derelict warehouse. I was amazed to find the room full of art lovers, polluting the dusty air with chatter and cigarette smoke. When I entered, they seemed to fall silent, as if I were an intruder of some kind, but I put this down to my imagination. Their dress and mannerisms seemed strange too, as if they belonged to an unknown society, rooted in some past or future time. The whole atmosphere was a bit like a Victorian workingman’s club, or what I imagined such a club to be.

There were many paintings on display; too many. The way they had been hung was atrocious, being crammed together, side by side and above and below each other. Each painting was done in a new and exciting style, mostly abstract in all kinds of murky shades of reddish brown, delineated in virtuoso streaks of paler tones and black or brown. Despite this, the atmosphere of the crowd and the peculiar freshness of the paintings filled me with excitement.

I found myself racing madly from one painting to another, pushing people out of the way to get a better look. It was the best stuff I had seen for years, outside retrospectives of the greats like Picasso or Matisse. I got so excited, almost flying round the room, that several of the spectators got angry, admonishing me for my unseemly behaviour. I was so elated; I just didn’t care. I seemed to be skating freely about on the rough floorboards like a professional performer, zipping about in exaggerated arcs from one painting to another.

I became very curious about who could have done such fine paintings, but the usual nameplates were absent. All I could see were some dark strips of wood below the paintings on which had been scrawled the details I was seeking, but I could not read any of it. It became so crowded now that I decided to explore further. There was a narrow doorway leading to what seemed to be another gallery at one end of the room. I zipped towards it, skilfully dodging the milling patrons.

The room turned out to be much the same with no windows or natural light; just some peculiar pendant lights that provided the necessary illumination. I could not understand how this could be so and indeed the paintings did seem to glow with an inner light of their own. This second gallery contained much larger works than the first, like huge murals but inset rather than hung from the walls.

I couldn’t decide if they were abstract or representational, so harmoniously was the subject integrated with the design. The most disconcerting thing was that the depictions seemed to move. What looked like a battle scene, with clouds of smoke and mysterious figures in conflict, seemed to progress from moment to moments; first one side prevailing and then the other. Another mural showed a ship, upright at first, then heeling over when I looked at it again. All the pictures possessed this weird changeability, like frames of a film that advance each time you blink. I guessed it must be some new kind of installation technique that I had not seen before.

My earlier elation dimmed into foreboding and I decided to leave. I made my way from room to room but there were no exit signs. The other visitors seemed quite hostile now, and I felt unable to ask for their help. The atmosphere grew very dim and stifling although the works in each gallery held me spellbound. I could hardly drag my eyes away from their aesthetic delights. Nevertheless, I longed to get out into the fresh air and sunlight of the City I had left behind.

The doors between the rooms were closed now, and I had to force them open to escape into a new gallery, but after many doors and rooms, I finally seemed to break out into a gallery with a balcony, overlooking the city. I beheld a vast landscape of rolling, scrub covered hills, covered with low cloud and strange vapours rising up from the ground. It looked like the site of a ruined city, overgrown by grass and trees. There was a sense of vastness and claustrophobia at the same time, as if the vision were just another elaborate illusion.

Despite its vast size and horrific aspect, I thought it was the most beautiful vision I had ever seen. It was like some creation from the beginning of time, a veritable Garden of Eden in the making, pregnant with the infinite possibilities of a new world, seething with the numinous menace of good and evil to come. I was at once both terrified and joyful, as if I had seen into the mind of some cosmic creator. I kept repeating to myself, “Privileged, I am so privileged to have seen this.”

No sooner had I made this incantation, than the whole landscape seemed to collapse, as if the paint had become less viscous, it began to break up like a great wave into a seething torrent below me. Terrified, I fled from the room into a derelict corridor. There were a couple of scruffy uniformed attendants fleeing along the dimly lit passage.

“What’s happening,” I shouted.

“It’s a bad storm,” one replied, “the rain is coming through the roof.”

This seemed a totally inadequate explanation for the upheaval I had just witnessed, but I looked down and saw that the floor was indeed running with water. I had to get out quick. Luckily, I found a staircase that ran down several floors. At the bottom, I blundered into what seemed to be a vast, derelict warehouse filled with cast offs from the museum above.
Massive scenic flats draped in tarpaulins were strewn about the walls, like theatre sets, and huge statues covered with dust cloths. Some of the statues seemed to move, as the paintings in the galleries had changed. They changed position with jerky movements as if trying to escape. One giant figure approached me, its head and shoulders draped in grey silk sheets. I pulled wildly at the coverings as it loomed over me to reveal the slack features of some human automaton. I was trapped in this museum of madness with works of art that had sprung to life.

At this point, I felt myself slipping away into utter confusion. It dawned on me that I had become insane and would never return to the old world. My only compensation was that this terrifying place seemed to offer incredible possibilities, a new freedom of imagination totally lacking in the world I had left behind. It was everything that the real world was not and therefore infinite in possibilities and extent. I was lost in a world of pure imagination.

I must have passed out at some stage. When I awoke, sweating with nausea, I was lying in a dirty London Street. Some passers by helped me to sit up. My brain was still full of the frightful images I had witnessed, but despite the awful feelings, I knew I would gradually recover. Someone called a Taxi and I got in, declining an invitation to go to St Thomas’s Hospital on the way back to my lodgings.

After some lunch at the Guest House and an afternoon sleep, I felt much better, but could not entirely rid my mind of the bizarre experiences of the morning. The next day, I took a taxi to the real Tate Extension, which I now learned was in the decommissioned Bankside power station , not in the old Battersea power station, and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits there. On the way back, I asked the taxi driver to track down the mysterious building I had named The Museum of Forgotten Dreams, but without success. So far, my mental condition has remained stable, but I entertain some fears that I may encounter that strange world again.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Mimi Lowana

Mimi saw the eagle turning in the sky
Falling on the dove, she heard it cry
Born of foam and sea, Mimi Lowana,
Sun, gored by the horned moon, his daughter
Young and dark, ran through the ruddy water
Black body shining on the sands so white
Running fast, fearful of the falling night

White heels, brown toes washed by the rising tide
Dancing feet marking the sand with each stride
Whispering on her thighs, her naga waves
Eyes clear glancing, like pearls in double caves
Swiftly stooping a cuttle-bone she saves
Throwing it in the Dilli on her back
Marking a pause in her mundowi track

Her longing shadow surfed the breaker’s curl
Who is she? Cried the breeze, this lovely girl
Surprised the spinning willy-willy sang
Not known to me cried out the jerrryang
Let’s hear her sing her song, the currawong
Chimed, hiding in the bunya-bunya pine
Praising this new creature so swift and fine

Black maluga sat, dreaming in his cave
Intent, listening to each wind and wave
Hearing the luana’s swift footsteps fall
He rose, grabbing his Mutting from the wall
Blinded from the deep darkness of his caul
He bounded from his quamby in the gibba
His shadow falling on the sands to gibber

He was gularra, this kundji, his bingy
Wobbling, his cabon Lubara swinging
Cooee, he cried out to the running jin
Quick, Come here right now or I’ll do you in
Mimi whirled round and laughed in fear and fright
Scared by the yahoo standing in her way
She cried, I’m Mimi daughter of the day

This koori, so boojeri and so fair
Dark honey sweetness, with a lovely pair
Her lips were sweeter than a mungite flower
He felt the mundi burning in his hair
Her witch’s spell had caught him in her power,
Had turned his heart to stone, a thunder egg,
Lubara swelling up from off his leg

Clutching at her as she shied from his desire
He raised his arms and cast a dreaming spell
Calling on dread jingi of earth and fire
He lunged after her with an anguished yell
A mad snake writhing to the earth he fell
Eyes rolling, spittle flying on his chin
He cried to the gods to give him this jin

The moon god, looking down on him with pity
wrapped him in the skin of jinayiki
Her impious flight his magic did impeach
With giant coils he lashed along the beach
In savage chase the lovely girl to reach
Mouth dry, she heard the earth begin to shake
As at her feet she felt the garish snake

The sea, stirred up by the moons presumption
Strove to save her daughter by assumption
Rising swift to meet the dying sunlight
She wreathed it round with salty water’s bight
Spinning a shining cord, a wrong to right
Drawing the serpents skin into the sky
She cast the screaming wagyl heaven high

Wreathed around by the serpent’s shining sheath
She joined her father in the evening light
As down beyond the sea he fell, beneath
The darkest spell of mysterious night
She followed in his wake, her face so bright
A beacon in the Milky Way unfurled
Sweet virgin of the night, joy of the world


bingi belly
boojeri pretty
bunya-bunya pine nut tree
cabon big
Cooee ‘come here’
Currajong bell magpie
dili collecting bag
gibba outcrop of rocks
gularra angry
jerryang little lorrikeet
jin wife
jinayiki snake
jingi devil
koori young girl
kundji wizard
lubara penis
lowana woman
maluga old man
mimi spirit
mungi magic stone
mundowi foot
mungite honeysuckle
mutting fishing spear
naga skirt
quamby sleeping place
willy-willy dust devil
wagyl rainbow serpent
Yahoo hairy man

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rain Dog

Even so near the sea, the land is parched.
A few Friesians, widely spread, crop dun fields
to the bone; a thin brown mare stands alone,
reaching through the rusting wire for yields of
scraggy weeds, survivors of the last bush fire.

On the plain, the breeze rattles through the cane,
drawing on small accounts of last months rain,
promising to pay the bearers of lost hope
in strength through sweetness and throat rasping rum,
but only if the summer storms will come.

Each mile along the snaking bitumen,
reveals a monument of weathered board
and tin, its peeling paint now worn quite thin
by burning sun and long forgotten storms;
Crouched in each a grieving farmer mourns.

Such are my victims and benefactors,
as pedlar of aluminium siding,
in shiny suit and silken tie, riding
like Paul Revere, with silver tongued tidings
of improvements for unwary settlers.

Along the road a lonely dog, abandoned,
feeds a last hope into a loping run,
but falls back quivering as I race by,
growing small in the corner of my eye
it cowers on the verge in the burning sun.

The last ten dollars in my tank count down
to five: I must soon select a prospect
or return defeated to the town where
wife and progeny hopefully expect
the hunter to deliver more than self-respect.

As the fields give way to distant mountains,
a tumbled home stands revealed on sparse plains.
No sign of beasts or brown tobacco yields,
Just a stand of gum trees to one side and
a rusting water tank remains besides.

Parking out of sight, I walk through stony bush,
and mount three steps up from the hard-baked ground.
On the veranda my creaking footsteps crush
the fallen jacaranda blooms and sound
my arrival to those inside the dingy rooms.

The screen door hangs askew and fails to hide
the view into a small but unfurnished hall.
The place seems deserted, no car outside
or sign that anyone lives here at all,
but then a shadow falls upon the wall

A woman in a shapeless dress appears within,
and incuriously returns my faltering gaze.
I haven’t made a sale for days and begin
my spiel about the costs of neglecting
property and the problems of wood and tin.

‘Best come in,’ she says, opening the screen,
‘I can’t decide; you’ll have to ask him inside’.
I follow her down the fibro corridor,
obeying the indication of her hand,
to stand nervously inside the bedroom door.

Half drawn curtains cast a bilious light
across the lino onto the single bed
where the farmer lies, hand beneath his head,
shrouded in purple shadows tinged with green,
parchment face covered with a sickly sheen.

The figure under the sheet is shrivelled, small;
drug dilated pupils barely move at all
beneath hairless lids as I approach the bed.
Lips part but I cannot hear what is said,
as the farmer tries to raise his head.

The curtain moves: outside the window
a sudden breeze waves the banana leaves.
The woman has gone now and I dumbly stare
at a black Bible on a table there,
and a glass of water; all else is bare.

Grey clouds gathering cast a pall of gloom,
releasing a tentative tattoo on tin.
A heavy crash of thunder shakes the room
to the accompaniment of wind soughing
through the gums and the rolling thunder’s din.

Eyes meet in mutual futility;
I mumble some excuse and turn to flee.
His voice croaks out at last, through waves of pain.
‘It’s been so long since I’ve heard the rain,’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I won’t trouble you again’.

As I reach the car the downpour lashes
in slanting rage; again the thunder crashes.
Beneath my feet the swirling dust churns to mud.
I wrench the door and dive in helter-skelter;
the black dog too takes shelter from the flood.

Bonded by such an accidental state,
wet squirming dog and flailing man create
a decision to relieve their moral load.
I throw my half-eaten lunch into the road
and abandon dog and farmer to their fate.


Burning Yesterday

Where have all the shoetrees gone,
buried in old leather one by one?
Hiding in wardrobes with trouser presses,
patent leather pumps and short-fringed dresses;
with Oxford Bags and elastic braces,
stained with summer joy and camphor traces.

Where are the tiepin and the collar stud,
to adorn the double breasted worsted?
In our fathers’ world of yesteryear
with brilliantine and centre parted hair,
standing by ladies with permanent waves,
tending lilacs draped round architraves.

Where the cigarette cards and bagatelle,
and gold trimmed telegrams that wished them well?
With pink teapots shaped like crinolines,
pregnant with buttons, string and safety pins,
and insipid prints hanging on the wall
over the Singer parked lonely in the hall.

Where the summers and un-seasonal heat,
the ration books and not enough to eat?
With the pinks and lupines round the lawn,
and smoking Spitfires limping home at dawn;
with stuttering Sten conversing in French woods
or behind counters with black-market goods.

Where the dartboard behind the door,
and well worn Axminster on the floor?
With the Chinese vase and pampas grass,
and oriental tables made of brass,
brought home from Empire’s far flung parts,
a sop to soldier’s wives with broken hearts.

Where the nightingale chanting jug-a-jug
and the air raid shelters still not dug?
With Vera singing on the radio,
the Man-in-Black reading Edgar Allan Poe,
and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca,
telling Bergman how he’d like to thank her.

Where the red-carpeted cinema,
with lowly usherettes and Wurlitzer?
Gone already with the cruel winds
of cities burning with war leader’s sins.
So with Coward’s spirit be blithe too
when your charred Atlantas fade from view.

The Librarian

A little story dedicated to Aloft Incumbent

Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha

Of all the libraries in all the world she had to walk into mine. No, my name’s not Rick and I don’t own a bar. I don’t even drink much anymore, but a warm brandy with a sweet companion would not go amiss in these dusty halls.

Books, books, books everywhere I look: in rows and columns of literary accountancy, duly classified and ordered; mulch for future minds to take root and grow in, or wilt and die of boredom.

I was nodding off over the conjuration for inferior spirits in my Grimoire - OSURMY + DELMUSAN + ATALSLOYM + CHARUSIHOA + MELANY- when the great double doors of the old building creaked and grated open with a crash. The light streamed in from the gothic arch of the doorway and turned the dancing dust motes into a galaxy of diurnal stars.

Framed in the entrance was the tall, bony figure of a man, wearing an incongruous beret, and by his side a smaller, girlish form. With the light behind them and the sudden shock of the illumination, I could not see the figures clearly, but the man appeared to be wearing dark glasses, which he did not remove in the gloom of the vaulted entrance.

There had been a similar disturbance a month or two before - I lose track of time in here by myself – when two men had made a quick tour of the building, scribbled some notes and left. I surmised they were an estate agent and perhaps a solicitor from their appearances and demeanour. One had remarked that the building should be torn down to make way for a state school, but that some covenant prevented this. Then they left, crunching down the gravel path to their horseless carriage.

The library sits on land that had once housed monks, living behind Ethelbert’s great cathedral constructed around 604AD. The present building, though, is a peculiar neo-gothic edifice with a pointed cupola of sixteen segments. Beneath every second window juts a double tier of shelves; three stories high, each with its iron balustrades. It was from this vantage point that I looked down on the interlopers.

Running to the centre of the radiating shelves the girl-woman danced in a circle, staring up at the cupola and declared, “This is all mine, I can’t believe it Poppa, it’s really mine.” The man moved slowly forward and rested his hand on one of the carved reading tables, bending a stiff neck upward to look at the shafts of light streaming from the dome. “You’ll have to find a buyer, but who would want such a crumbling relic? The rates alone will send us broke in a couple of months.”

“But there was money too, I want to use some of it to open it all up again, so everyone in the world can enjoy these wonderful books,” she replied.

The man, saying nothing, looked at the ground before making a move towards the door.

“Wait Poppa, wait,” she cried in alarm, running towards him, “I have to look at the books, we can’t just leave them alone again after coming so far.”

Removing his glasses, he turned to embrace her briefly. “We have to see the solicitors, what was their name?”

“I forget. I don’t care what their silly name is. Humbug and Humbug or some English name.”

“Oh yes, Humboldt and Humboldt,” the man said. “You’ll have to come, we’ve done the inspection and now we have to sign the papers.”

With a last look round, she followed him towards the doors, which were pulled together with difficulty, slammed home and locked.

The sound of their departure resonated in the gloom, leaving a peculiar ring of emptiness in my ears. The girl reminded me of Teresa (honey haired after the dark of treacle moon), but perhaps younger than the Venetian’s nineteen years. Memory, for me, is like the surface of some unfinished sculpture; smooth in the completed parts but rough in those unweathered by time. Who I was then is not who I am now, a wraith of times past wandering along the bookshelves, looking for an as yet unwritten life.

It is many years since this tomb was filled with warm bodies: sitting at the oak tables, rifling through file drawers, requesting access to the rare books section or furtively stealing books they were too ashamed to buy. An endowment from a wealthy 19th Century industrialist, soon to become a Baron, had seen the library built and stocked from the great house of its founder; not me I hasten to add. This remark may seem strange, but my identity is uncertain until sculpted by the author’s hand. Until that happens I am imprisoned in this library until imagination attains a sharper reality.

Now, where was I before the interruption? Ah, yes, the spirits which are so neglected in this peculiar phase of human history when science takes the lead in the empire of materialism. It seems I may have use for FRIMOST, BRULEFER and maybe SIDRAGOSAM. But then I would need a material body, which is hard to get. I must conjure the body of the fair boy; though unusually red he may be pleasing to her. But maybe she won’t return and I will have to find something else to think about.


My heart leapt in anticipation when the key next turned in the lock, but it was only a pair of contract cleaners dressed in blue overalls emblazoned with the logo SCRUBUCLENE. After a long search for a tap one was duly found but the water had been turned off to prevent burst pipes in winter. The electricity had been turned on the week before and the pair contented themselves with vacuuming the vast expanse of floors and walkways and doing some cursory dusting of books and shelves. During this cacophony I took refuge in the cellars where my silk lined sarcophagus provided welcome relief from the noisy intruders.

Like the chrysalis of a giant Amazonian butterfly, I sleep for a long time. My sleep is not intermittent as I remember human sleep to be, but simply an awakening into a clear but terrible land. When I awake into each dream, I am truly free, and no longer bound by invisible bonds of my intangible wraith like existence in the library.

Now, in this high place, the wind is cold but the unnatural power of my blood makes me hot with desire for action. Raising my arms, I unfurl my wings and spring from the precipice, borne up as much by the magnetic force of my being as by the gusting wind.

When I awake again to the living death of the library, my head is filled with burning memories, of strange encounters and deadly strife, of ravaging and death peculiar to the spirit world, of heightened cravings satisfied, for the time being.

I struggle up from the tomb, weary from the dream. Head pounding, sore eyes stinging. The memories of life quickly fade into the grey walls of the cellar with its illusion of solidity. I struggle back up the stairs into the library, to the strains of unfamiliar and rather primitive music.

The girl is dancing round one of the long tables, book in hand, stuffing something into her mouth, which could be nuts or perhaps chocolate, but I cannot see clearly yet through my half closed eyes. She seems to have been here for some time, judging by the mess on the table, which includes some kind of musical device, which makes a very loud sound echoing through the empty space of the hall. In my human existence there was much excitement at the invention of the pianoforte, but now pianissimo has given way to a not entirely unpleasing rhythmic fortissimo from a relatively tiny instrument. One almost expects Gabriel will have to come up with something more impressive than a long tube of brass for his next visit to this god-forsaken realm.

I see from the clock over the main desk that it is nearly half past three in the afternoon (who keeps winding the clocks, I wonder).
I quickly call upon CLISTHERT to change day into night. The clock remains unchanged but the windows become dark as night instantaneously falls. I always thought it queer that day breaks and night falls but remains intact.

The girl stops in mid jig at the sudden change but does not scream, as she surely would have done if the pendant lights had not been turned on. I realise my error as she rushes to the door to investigate, and struggle to remember the spell for locking doors.
Quickly, quickly, Yes! ABRACADABRA becomes ARBADACARBA and works both ways, the door is safely secured; she cannot escape.

Unprepared as I am, there is one spell that is second nature, the art of making, and I use it now to make myself appear: Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha.

I spring down from my perch and land at her feet. She jumps back in terror but then bends down to pick me up, holding me in her arms, her alarm at the diurnal catastrophe seemingly relieved by my sudden appearance.

“Oh what a beautiful boy,” she says, “I’m going to keep you forever. Wait until I show Poppa what a lovely pussy I’ve found.”

I purred contentedly, and vowed to bide my time until the circumstances were right for my next transformation.

What is the soul and does it survive after death?

This question has been mulled over by poets, priests and philosophers for millennia. Various concepts of the soul can be found in most societies past and present. Many primitive people believe that plants and animals as well as humans have souls, and may even attribute souls to inanimate objects, including representations of gods made of stone or wood. This tendency to ascribe souls or spirits to everything is called animism and forms the basis of many primitive religions.

Lacking a rational explanation for most aspects of nature, particularly the behaviour of animals and humans, the primitive mind developed the idea of soul to explain how things moved and behaved. Among the natural phenomena they encountered was death, and the concept of soul became strongly associated with this mystery. The cessation of movement, breathing and all the usual activities of a human or animal suggested that the soul was no longer present in the body of the dead. This loss of soul formed the important link with death and raised the question as to where the soul had gone.

The separation of soul and body inherent in the idea of an animating principle developed into many complex theories about the relationship between the human body and the human soul, which were considered to be distinct entities. What seemed clear was that the soul could exist without a body, because it wandered off and sometimes did not return, but that the body could not exist without its soul, because it ceased to function and decayed.

The occurrence of dreams supported the idea of a wandering soul that could leave the body. The dreamer often visits different places and meets familiar people in dreams, which suggested the relative freedom of the soul to leave the body. This phenomena presented dangers to the body should the soul be prevented from returning. Sickness was viewed as such a problem and the shaman or priest would perform ceremonies to restore the soul to its rightful place in the body. Such were the ideas of the soul that formed the basis of more complex religions and the metaphysical speculations of the earliest philosophers who analysed the traditional ideas perpetuated by poets and priests.

What should be clear at this point is that the answer to the question is relative to the beliefs of different peoples at different times over most of human history. Some of the earliest religious ideas about the soul are to found in ancient Egypt, Babylon, ancient Greece, Rome and the Christian empire that succeeded paganism. Indian, Chinese and pre-Columbian American civilisations should be included too, but the central theme of the soul in so-called western civilisation is most easily traced to the Greco-Roman civilisation and its predecessors in the Middle East.

Another approach would be to consider the doctrines of the soul and death in the major religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. However this would involve both encyclopaedic scholarship and exposition. Suffice to say that a simple explanation precludes this approach but can readily outline the main ideas involved without it.

The mystery religions of ancient Greece and subsequently of Rome, including Christianity share common ideas about the soul, although their rituals differed greatly. It is these ideas that form the basis of popular beliefs today, after they have been strained through the elaborate filters of conventional religious sects, occultism, spiritualism and the thousands of variations to be found in modern day society. Even to list the main players in this elaborate industry since the beginning of the 19th Century would be too arduous.

The field of philosophy, in contrast to theology, must be considered too since this is where the most careful, and hopefully rational, consideration has been given to the concepts of soul and death. An important schism arose in ancient Greece on these questions. Plato (427-347 BCE) was strongly influenced by traditional thought, including the ideas of the mystery religions from Southern Italy. Consequently his ideas focus on the spiritual and immaterial aspects of life. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) took the pragmatic view that the soul meant the functions of the living body, such as breathing, cardio-vascular circulation (which he didn’t know about), digestion and all the rest. The permanent cessation of these bodily functions was death so that Aristotle’s definition of the soul excluded the possibility of its existence as an entity separate from the body. Aristotle’s soul, therefore, was just the sum total of all the complex processes that constitute human, animal or plant life.

For rational materialists this looks like an open and shut case but the ‘idealist’ concept of humanity cannot be so easily dismissed. Much of the history of philosophy is concerned with the division between materialist ideas, following Aristotle, and the so-called ‘idealism’ of Plato and his successors. The most influential advocate of Plato’s ideas was the Roman philosopher Plotinus (205-270 CE). The Neo-Platonic system of Plotinus is perhaps the most thorough doctrine of the soul devised at that time and was subsequently incorporated into Roman Christianity by the early theologians. It is worth mentioning that Constantine’s Council of Nicea served to integrate Neo-Platonism and other religions into Roman Christianity, which consequently overshadowed the ideas preserved by the actual followers of Jesus as opposed to the writings of latecomers like Paul of Tarsus.

Plotinus was a metaphysician who believed that a supreme being, which he called The One, was beyond all human understanding and was consequently beyond all attributes. For example, one could not say that The One was good, wise, omniscient, omnipotent or anything else. The supreme foundation of the cosmos was ineffable ie simply too great for human thought. However, he did say that The One ‘emanated’ a second entity, which he called The Intellectual Principle. The function of this second order being was to contemplate The One and ‘think about’ what it could possibly be. The result of such ruminations was the emanation of a third order being called The Soul, which also contemplated the wonder of The Intellectual Principle but also emanated the Sun, the Moon, the stars, the Earth and all material entities whatsoever. It is this world soul that forms the connection with the human soul and gives human life a special place in the scheme of things.

From a modern perspective it is clear that Plotinus just made this stuff up in a way that would convince his contemporaries that there was a benign order underlying the suffering and strife that constituted life under the Roman Empire. However, the integration of the mysteries and vagaries of Platonism into a coherent and logical system of philosophy was a major achievement. The difficult question that it answered was where souls came from and where they went after death. The answer was that human souls always existed as part of the immaterial world soul.

Although The Soul had created the material world it was an entirely spiritual being. Matter was viewed as the lowest level of its emanations beyond which it could not go. In other words, matter was the lowest possible entity in the scheme of things. The creation of humans involved the capturing of a bit of the world soul into the body. It was this soul that controlled the body through the faculties of the intellect, the emotions and instinctual desires. The natural desire of the human soul was to return to The Soul, where it had lived in bliss. The descent of the soul into a material body was considered to be death from the perspective of it origin and was therefore a living hell.

This idea of the descent of the body and its yearning to return to a perfect and immortal life had been the subject of the many pagan myths that preceded Plato’s philosophy. In particular, the Eleusinian mystery religion manifested as a variety of secret doctrines on this theme prior to its integration with the official pantheon of ancient Greece. The principle myth was that of Ceres and Persephone, which related life and death to the growth of crops. Recent archeological research has revealed that the original urban societies were agricultural rather than pastoralist, so their main economic concerns were centred round the successful growing of crops. The content of religion reflected these concerns.

The theme of the descent into the underworld and the return to the light is a metaphor for the planting of crops in the winter months, the growth of crops in the spring and reaping in the autumn. The myth finds Persephone picking flowers in the Elysian Fields with her mother Ceres, the goddess of corn. The god of the underworld, Pluto, bursts out of the ground and carries off Persephone into the underworld. Ceres complains to Zeus, the brother of Pluto, but gets no sympathy. Descending into Hades, Ceres persuades Pluto to release her daughter. Pluto agrees but says she must not look back on the journey to the light. Pluto gives Persephone four pomegranate seeds to nourish her on the Journey. She eats the seeds that force her to return to Pluto for four months of the year. In this way Persephone becomes Queen of the dead and determines the fate of all those souls who end up in Hades. `

A similar myth is to be found in the death and resurrection of Osiris, but there is some dispute as to whether the Eleusinian mysteries originated in Mesopotamia or Egypt or a bit of both. Suffice to say each stage in the religious development involved the relation of the soul to the material body and to the afterlife. The immense body of religion and philosophy concerned with this matter has had a profound effect on many societies subsequently, including the control of medieval societies through the doctrine of salvation and the terrors of Hell. However, the brief picture provided so far provides sufficient basis for considering the question, does the soul exist and does it survive after death.

If we accept Plotinus’s theory or something similar we have to accept the existence of an immaterial world soul that does not come under the domain of physics by definition. The usual scientific approach to such theoretical entities is to apply Occam’s (William of Occam was a medieval theologian) advice that we should not needlessly invent entities to support our theories. If there is no evidence for the soul beyond poetic or emotional sentiment, then it must be rejected as unscientific. The contrary view is that the soul by its very nature is not part of the material world and can only be understood by deep metaphysical enquiry.

This latter was Plato’s position. He thought that human salvation could only be achieved through the perfection of the soul during its term of imprisonment in the body. The best way to do this was to become a philosopher and seek out the good. By so doing there was a good chance that the soul would escape the body and unite with the divine world soul forever.

If we discount the idealist, immaterial definition of the soul to be found in religion and Platonic metaphysics, Aristotle’s more scientific approach remains. The soul is just a handy name given to the totality of the life processes going on in a living thing, whether human, animal or plant life. The soul in this sense is the intuitive idea we have of life. Logically, when this life ceases, the particular soul associated with that life ceases too. The analogy of the body with a candle and the soul with the flame is a handy one. The candle can be relit and a new flame appears. Relighting the human body, within narrow limits, is a regular medical occurrence, but is generally beyond human powers in the long term. The physical body and the higher faculties of intellect and memory associated with it are easily destroyed for good if the brain is damaged. In this event, it seems clear that the soul does not survive death.

The conclusion that there is no soul implies there is no survival of the human individual after death. This raises questions about consciousness and the meaning of human identity. For example, is the person in a perfect clone identical to the originating person? These are related but different questions.

Given the considerable understanding of physics and cosmology that has been achieved, an immortal soul is surely impossible, since the cosmos itself is more likely to have a finite existence beyond pure chaos. We do not really know the answer to such difficult questions but little purpose is served in mistaking ancient mythological ideas for the basis of sound philosophical enquiry.