The Island

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE ISLAND


This great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal.

Hart Crane 

 He is a fugitive from artifice and contrived order. Like many before him, he abandons the urgency of responsibility upon the vast watery swell and permits the dark pull of the Deep to carry him along. He knows not where, but in his heart lies an isle of refuge which he hopes is a mirror of some peaceful promontory lying just over the horizon. It lies there off the trade route, one of the smaller islands that remains virtually uncharted, and it has a hidden inlet permitting access to its verdant interior. Around its cliffed edges mists gather in the morning, and the bird-calls hover over the waves below like disembodied sirens. In the summer the island floats and laughs like an emerald goddess washing her hair. It sings of love and meadowed slumber drifting through the seasons above the broiling sea. The winter winds churn the waves around its cliffs and cast their darkened reflection into the shrouding mists, but the island stands ever firm. Its mystery deepens with its growing isolation. In a tumultuous sea of flux, it is the mystical refuge waiting to be found.

 The fugitive sees the island clearly with the eyes of his heart, and he risks the menacing assault of the ocean of the unconscious in order to get there. He has launched himself alone in search of a dream that has haunted men for ages. Will his small craft carry him to the hidden inlet? Will he drift and die upon the endless sea? Will his craft be smashed upon the rocks, and will he be washed up onto the beach of that longed for island? If he reaches the island and begins the trek up the small valley leading into the interior, will he find he is alone? Will this be the island of Defoe or of Huxley or Stevenson? Will it be watched over by Prospero or guarded by Circe? Will he find a refuge in isolation or be driven mad with loneliness? Will he find love and truth? Will he find himself?

 Will he arrive at the Accursed Island, where solitude is ever interrupted by enchantments, tortures and infernal apparitions? Will his isolation bring him to that pass expressed by John Clare, whose last poems were written in a lunatic asylum?

I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host. . . .
And yet I am, and live with shadows tost.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my Creator, God;
And sleep as I in childhood slept.

 No voices, no outer barbarity and inner torment: this is the promise of the isolated island. But in pitching himself into the "immense illogic of the sea", can he be sure that the synthesis of will and consciousness rising up on the horizon is an island refuge where clarity and innocence abide? After prolonged solitude it is said that castaways tend to hover on the verge of insanity or savagery. Typically of European background, they struggle to create a sense of purpose, to impose an idea of a larger order upon a fragment suspended in space and time. Will this be the fugitive's solitude, or will it be like that of the woman of San Nicholas Island who lived abandoned there for seventeen years and befriended the sea otters of her cove? They used to swim and play together-, their trust in her was complete. But when she was removed to the mainland and engaged in gentle human contact, the joy of life dimmed and she withdrew slowly and died. Something inexpressible had happened to her during those lonely island years.

 The island is thus a symbol of solitude and death, but also of immortality. Gods were born on the White Isles in the upper world, and Elysium was called the Island of the Blessed, to which mortals who had successfully come through a triple test in life were transported. The Greeks also held that, when slain by an arrow guided by Apollo, Achilles was lamented by Thetis and her sister nymphs, who snatched his body from the pyre and bore it to the White Isle in the Euxine Sea, where he was restored to eternal life. To the Hindus this sacred place is the Essential Island. Its golden slopes and rounded banks are said to be encrusted with gems. Of unparalleled beauty, tradition says that it once floated where now exist only desolate salt lakes and death-dealing sands. They say that the Isle of Death is in fact very close to the Isle of the Blessed and that both are crowded round with islands of danger and madness. Sometimes these qualities mix and mock one another on the same island. The infernal apparitions of the Accursed Island await those with tainted hearts, but the honest seaman can be instructed even by a Caliban, who counsels:

Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight,
 and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.

The island of The Tempest holds all these things. It is the witness of savagery and the barely awakened mind, and it is the abode of the master-magician who knows the secret of immortality and can govern all the forces that sing and cry along the island caves and crags down to the sea.

 The island is an assertion of consciousness in the midst of the watery abyss of chaos. The Tahitian myths describe how the Creator Tangaroa stood with one foot upon the reef on one side, the other upon that of the opposite side, and commanded the hard rocks to support mountains and sand and to lie as a bed for the earth and the sea. The island thus rose up and became an objective expression of the god, an assertion of desire in form. Marooned on an island for twenty-eight years, Daniel Defoe's hero learnt that the height of human wisdom was to match one's temper with the circumstances and to maintain an island of calmness within, even whilst surrounded by watery chaos without. In his case, the island, rather than imprisoning him and overwhelming him with isolation, conveyed a deeper message of self-dependent consciousness. In myth the imprisoning is often at the hands of a woman - a nymph or goddess of the island. Heroes overcome and kill monsters but are entrapped by some beguiling mistress of the rocky shore of dalliance. They ensnare and stupefy the hero. They can drown his conscious assertion and lull him into forgetfulness, carrying him into a floating, timeless world from which he occasionally jolts awake.

 In the South Seas a scattering of 'white' men live as fugitives from civilization, ensnared by the damsel islands. Many of them are in flight, suffering from a sickness of the soul which no borrowed paradise can assuage. They sit in quietly disintegrating bars and strive for that oblivion which substitutes for enchantment or genuine innocence and simplicity. The ingredients of their lives are compressed by insular life and climax more quickly. Like tropical growth, they mature overnight and burst into bloom, their true colours exposed with no shading or refinement. People who live in the islands say that the colours there stupefy. They are too brilliant and primitive for a civilized man. He cannot place them in a rational world of order because they bleed through the boundaries of his consciousness and deprive him of any point of reference. They say the blueness of the sea around a coral atoll can rob a man of all sense of comparison. What then of the island of calmness within? It is the rare 'white' man who has found a true home in the islands and learnt to maintain a sense of direction and purpose there. A few of these have, through their brush or pen, given the world wonderful descriptions of places whose names have become synonyms for many people's idea of paradise. They have also recorded the haunting myths and history of the island people who navigated thousands of miles of uncharted seas and made homes of the lava crusts and the coral reefs.

 As the nature of the sea affects the island, so the island shapes the characteristics of its people. The Aegean Sea is named after King Aegeus of Athens, who hurled himself into the waves when he thought his son Theseus had been slain by the Minotaur. As his spirit remained in that sea, it gave to it a royal and masculine quality. It is said that the bright clarity of the atmosphere around Aegean islands lends them a rational influence which affects people's minds and gives them a decisive character. The islands of the Ionian Sea are mist-shrouded and feminine in their mystery. Some say this is because the spirit of lo hovers over the sea to which she gave her name. The siroccos and boreal winds bring shifting heat and cold around these islands, and they are tricky to approach in winter. The islands of Polynesia are surrounded by enormous expanses of an ocean whose tropical calm is broken occasionally by violent hurricanes or tsunami that can erase whole villages from island surfaces. Settled upon coral atolls rising just a few feet above sea level, or upon high volcanic islands prone to eruption, the Polynesians are accustomed to sudden violence in nature and accept it along with the easy growth and decay, the flamboyant flowering and lack of urgency that permeate the islands.

 They say that the low islands, or coral atolls, are the result of cosmic patience. They are formed of numberless tiny polyps that extract lime from the ocean and build calcified cells which, tightly bound together, can reach a thickness of several thousand feet. The sand covering their low surfaces comes from the wind and the sea, and little more than coconut palms will thrive on them, but their white beaches and brilliant azure lagoons are breathtaking in their beauty. The high islands are craggy with deep inland valleys and cascades that plunge into shaded pools and grottoes. The volcanic activity at their core will ultimately cause the islands to collapse into the sea, leaving behind residual coral reefs that will slowly grow to form atolls in millennia to come. These appearing and disappearing islands are witnessed only by the few, celebrated by people whose minds and hearts are as cloudless as an unblemished day, whose violence erupts with equal simplicity, and whose beauty dawns with the ease of orchid flowers growing out of the bark of a fallen tree.

 Be they coral or volcanic or part of the continental shelf like the islands of the Mediterranean, of Indonesia or of the North Sea, what lures the fugitive on? Which has the greater mystery: the Outer Hebrides or Skye? Or is it one of the Sporades, the Dodecanesoi or the Ionian Heptanesoi: Corfu, Paxos or famed Ithaca? Pelagos in the Aegean is green, mountainous, beautiful and uninhabited. Skopelos has wooded valleys and monasteries, whilst off the Dalmatian coast lie over a thousand jewels of the Adriatic. Which is the more alluring, the more reminiscent of a paradisaical dream: Hivo Oa, Moorea, Tongatapu or Kwajalein? The reefs create a beautiful natural lagoon at Tahiti, whilst Pitcairn's cliffs are high and deeply undercut by the pounding surf. They drop from a knife-green edge to the boiling sea below, and the boom of the waves carries for miles. Which is the island of one's dreams, and is one sure that dreams always describe things of this world? It is said that geography was part of the Mysteries in ancient times, and it may be that Lemuria, Atlantis or the Isle of Avalon speak to one in longings which burgeon at times like painful islands of buried dreams. They float for a while and then resubmerge as the mind is filled once again with practicalities.

 Occult geography pinpoints islands that cannot be reached by sea but through the caves of Ellora and Ajanta, or through the desert of Shamo. The Blessed Isle is said to be an exact copy of that situated in the centre of the zodiacal wheel, whilst the twelve signs themselves are surrounding islands in the heavenly sea. Arthur Rimbaud must have intuited something of this when he wrote: "I have seen starry archipelagoes! and islands whose heavens are opened to the voyager." The voyage must span heaven and earth, for it is said that navigation on any sea must take its bearings from the stars. For the whole globe there is the north polar island which is a skullcap that will prevail for the whole manvantara. This is the head of the Mother from which water flows, travelling to her feet at the south where it becomes foul, to be purified "on its return to her heart - which beats under the foot of the Sacred Shamballah". As with the globe, so with portions of it. In the Mediterranean, Cape Taenaron, which is the entrance to the nether world, marks the division between the Ionian and Aegean Seas, and the Isle of Man off the coast of England is said to lead to the Divine Land.

 On the authority of Demetrius, who was a Roman functionary in Britain, Plutarch reported that around the mainland there were many lesser islands named after gods and heroes. Demetrius visited one whose inhabitants were regarded as sacred, and he felt that the islands were like Elysium. Indeed, the native people spoke of a divine land. In the Celtic tradition the journey to this Annwfn was undertaken by the hero Bran, who found that four feet of white bronze upheld the island and that it was a place of wondrous skill in magic and life without end. Its points were the ocean's streams, and all who reached it could never again return to Erin. Its abundance and the fact that it is ruled by a beautiful queen recalls to mind fabled Avalon, whose virgin protector healed Arthur of his mortal wounds. Her name is Argonte, and it is said that the noble king dwells with her in purity and bliss for all time. From Avalon came the Lady of the Lake bearing the magical sword Excalibur with which Arthur shaped the consciousness and will of a people. And it was to Avalon that all returned when the work of the day had been done.

 Elysium, Avalon, Annwfn or the Chinese San Hsien Shan - they are all uncharted, beyond the horizon, beneath the sea. They are like Lemuria and Atlantis, spoken of as myths having little to do with the real world. But there are islands in Melanesia said to be remnants of Lemuria, and the legends of Atlantis have lived on in Greek and Hindu and many other people's beliefs. The Hopi say they came from an island which sank in the ocean to the west, and the Greek island of Santorini is held by many to be a remnant of Plato's island. Arcane records suggest that most of Atlantis went down around eight hundred and fifty thousand years ago, but the last of the islanders disappeared only some eleven thousand years past. With this was completed the Third Step of Idaspati (Vishnu) and the rule of Poseidon. In Greek cosmogony Uranos ruled the Second Race, Kronos (Saturn) the Third, and Poseidon the Fourth. The completion of the last rule was marked by a great war between the Initiates of the Sacred Island and the sorcerers of Atlantis.

Sake-Dwipa was the earliest Atlantis, when it was composed of seven virtuous districts and seven holy rivers that washed away all sins. But when the Daityas of Pushkara and the Rakshasas replaced the ascetics of the Third Age, Atlantis became infamous in her abuse of power. The struggle between Rama, the Avatar-king, and Ravana raged upon the beaches of Lanka which, founded by Visvakarman, had been virtuous before falling into the hands of the demon-king. Now, like other parts of Atlantis, it had become the Dark Island which would soon lie buried many fathoms beneath the sea. Some survivors of the sinking of greater Atlantis settled on an island-remnant of Lemuria, only to perish from volcanic fires and lava. This is the occult explanation behind the mystery of Easter Island, where great megalithic statues stand in varying stages of manufacture, abandoned by unknown craftsmen whose engineering and conceptual abilities were the progeny of a more colossal age. In the early eighteenth century, then indigenous natives prayed before these quarried monoliths, but by the end of that century many had toppled and the residual power of Lanka was frozen in the long stylized faces of those who continued to gaze mutely out to sea.

 The island of Corfu is linked to this mystery through its early name Drepanum, which refers to the terrible act committed by Kronos upon his father Uranos. With a reaping hook (drepani) he mutilated his parents and cast the instrument into Sicily. It was said that where the drops of blood fell, a race of giants evolved heralding the Third and Fourth Races. During the Trojan Wars, Corcyra (Corfu) was looked upon as a semi-mythical island at the edge of the world. It was the home of the Phoeacians who, according to Homer, were brought from Hyperia, where they had lived near the Cyclops who forced their exodus. Their government centered upon a king surrounded by twelve aristocrats, who ruled according to a pattern which echoed the governorship belonging to the twelve zodiacal islands. When he was washed onto their shore, Odysseus found kind reception and friendship.

Then sweil'd to sight Phoeacia's dusky coast,
And woody mountains, half in vapour lost;
That lay before him indistinct and vast,
Like a broad shield amid the wat'ry waste.

The Odyssey 

 With Pallas Athena's assistance he was tossed and buffeted onto the beach where the river Potamo empties into the sea. It was here the princess Nausicaä fed and clothed him and conducted him to the city of the Phoeacians. In her father's court Odysseus told the story of his trials and of his unswerving desire to reach his homeland of Ithaca and the waiting Penelope, who daily wove and unwove a tapestry demanded by her unwanted suitors. The islands of his adventure had ranged from the Aegean to the Ionian Seas, and some suggest further still. The dread passage between Scylla and Charybdis may have been the Straits of Messina, but no one is sure where the Cimmerian shores of Perpetual Mist He or the island of Polyphemus. If Odysseus belonged to the cycle of heroes of the Fourth Race, then he may have moved well outside the Pillars of Hercules, though Homer's geography is basically compliant with the placement and description of many of the Greek isles. But Homer was a poet and capable of weaving scattered fragments of great antiquity together with complicated Mycenaean symbolism. The blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus is one of the most poignant passages in The Odyssey and rightly so, marking as it does the loss of vision of the Third Eye. Odysseus brutally asserts his independence of this titanic mode, only to fall into the snares of a series of female protagonists who threaten to frustrate his homeward journey. Each is associated with an island and represents certain dangers and temptations. The beautiful and dangerous witch Circe of the Isle of Aeaea renders invaluable service once she realizes that Odysseus is protected by Hermes. Her powers become a saving guide through the Misty Land of the Dead and the dread passage near the island of the Sirens and between the rocks of the monstrous hags Scylla and Charybdis.

 The Greek word νησος (nesos), which lends itself to islands all over the world (Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, Dodecanesia, etc.), derives from a root word neo, 'to swim or float'. But it is also related to the term νησος (nesis) which refers to the spinning of a spider, the spinning of the threads of fate. Another relevant meaning attached to this word is the action of heaping or piling up, which possibly suggests the process of island-building, but also a kind of weaving and stacking of pieces in a design of some sort. The theme of spinning and weaving is particularly suggestive in connection with the laboured journey of Odysseus, for two of the most important women in the epic have names related to weaving. Circe's name is derived from kerkis, which is the rod or comb in the loom by which the threads of the woof are driven home to make the web close and even. Penelope's name is connected with the mythic tale of the pene or 'web'. It refers to the thread on the spool which is wound off a reel. Indeed, Odysseus does thread his way through the islands as the pattern of his destiny is woven and unwoven. But he follows one constant thread which leads back to Ithaca.

Be sure you are quite old when you drop anchor in Ithaca.
Rich with the experience you have gained on your voyage,
Do not expect the island to give you riches.
Ithaca has given you a wonderful voyage.
Without Ithaca you would never have started.
It has no more to show you now.

C. P. Cavafy 

 'Far-Seen Rocky Ithaca' is a name whose roots indicate man's origins from an ancient stock. It juts out of the Ionian Sea in two ridges united by a central peak called the Eagle. Cyclopean walls upon its summit are all that remain of what was once a great palace, the place of home-coming, where right prevailed over deceit and the true king claimed his queen and throne. This was not an island paradise but an ideal which hovered as a vision in Odysseus' mind. The intense love of a rocky-island dream may thus far surpass the longing for the lotus-land of emerald peaks and blue lagoons. The poet David MacBeth Moir poignantly expressed this sentiment:

From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the wastes of seas -
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.

 To the Greeks, dreams were like an island. Hypnos (Sleep) moved from earth to the Island of Dreams and hence to the nether world. Men follow in their sleep, moving along the dreaming headlands of Sappho's isle, along the ocean river haunted with voices from another world. The current moves them past the splendour of Iraklion's ruins and through the Pillars of Herakles to the cold island far to the south. With great sweep, the winds propel them into the vast tropical seas, and they are entranced by the palmy slopes rising out of the laughing waves. They think they have come home, that joy and goodness and truth have been found at last. But the Blessed Island is not easily won. The Island of Utopia is hard to find, and it is said that Samothrace is very inaccessible: "an atmosphere of the Cabeiri surrounds it like a mist". In ancient times it was a centre of worship, where secret initiations into the Mysteries of the Kabiri took place, and it has been bypassed by political travails and economic interests. It stands like a great marble temple, ancient and somehow shrouded from the world.

 Less mysterious, perhaps, is the Aegean island of Patmos, but it was there that St. John received his apocalyptic vision, which became the basis of the Book of Revelation. 'Apocalypse' means literally 'the uncovering' and it comes from the word kάλνψω (Calypso), which refers to that which is veiled or covered. One remembers Calypso weaving at her loom in her idyllic cave, using her charms to cause Odysseus to forget his goal and capitulating only at the insistence of Hermes, who guards over the struggling hero. Calypso's island of Ogygia is a place of dreams and obscuration, a lovely fairyland where long days would slip into one another unmarked. But the Apocalypse is not to be experienced there, nor the Holy Fires of the Kabiri that were created at seven localities on the island of Samothrace. The journey must continue from island to solitary island. The menacing assault of the great sea of the unconscious has to be crossed many times before one can find the island of refuge which neither enchants nor slips away but ever exists in the deepest dreams of the human race. It is the one homeland, the Avalon, the Ithaca, the Blessed Isle of Man.

Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortals live alone.
Like islands - once part
Of a single continent.