Any readers of this blog unfamiliar with Charles Williams’ Taliessin poems will have to forgive this rather absurd-sounding question, and may pass over the answers given here. But, really, why are there octopods in P’o-lu?
The reason, I believe, is linked to Williams’ use of the Zodiac. The octopus corresponds to the house of Cancer, which in turn forms one of the ‘solstitial gates’ of traditional astrology.1
Now, what on earth does that mean? Simply put, astrologers place a great emphasis on the two solstices, at which, in traditional terms, the Sun reaches its highest and lowest points relative to the Earth. The summer solstice, as the highest peak of the year, marks the beginning of the sun’s descent – the days gradually begin to shorten from that point onwards. Likewise, at the winter solstice, the sun begins its gradual ascent.
In that these two dates represent transitional states, they were traditionally regarded as the ‘gateway of the human’ and ‘gateway of the divine’ respectively. This is perhaps best explained by the Neoplatonic notion of the fall of mankind from a primordial divine unity. The descending path of the Sun, therefore, symbolises such a fall – a descent into manifestation and materiality. The ascending path, on the other hand, represents the re-ascent of man to the One – the primordial unity that lies at the centre of the cosmos – the unmanifested, principial point. In cosmological terms, Numenius of Apamea described this as ‘the ascension of souls into the ether.’2
Because these two paths are by nature opposed, René Guénon sees in the former a ‘malefic’ aspect, and in the latter a ‘benefic’.3 The summer solstice is associated with the zodiacal house of Cancer (represented in this specific context with the octopus, as in Celtic culture, and not the usual crab), the winter with Capricorn (represented with the dolphin). It seems not too far a stretch to relate the descent into materiality to the lower regions of the symbolic geography in Williams’ Taliessin cycle. P’o-lu, while not an underworld, nonetheless has certain infernal characteristics, and can truly be considered ‘malefic’ in relation to the rest of Williams’ secondary world. Situated in the tropics, it occupies the opposite hemisphere to Byzantium – the antipodes – and as such constitutes an inversion of the order of the Empire. To travel to P’o-lu symbolises a descent into the lowest potentialities of man, in direction contradiction to the ascent towards the divine.
There is also a sense in which P’o-lu represents the “Reign of Quantity” in Guénon’s terms. It is situated at the opposite pole to the heavenly city of Byzantium, and corresponds as we have seen to the gateway of the human, the gateway of manifestation and materiality. It is to this lower pole of manifestation that the denser, base elements and raw matter belong, hence we can understand why the octopods ‘crawl heavily’ along the surface of the sea.
At the farthest possible distance from the centre, the source of form and coherence to the world, P’o-lu is a chaotic, murky, and largely formless place. The octopods are indicative of this reign of quantity with their many limbs, and their lack of hands suggests amorphousness – matter triumphing over form.
I hope to do more brief analyses of aspects of this poetry in the future, so if this was of any interest, do stay tuned!
1 René Guénon, Symbols of Sacred Science, p.164
3 Ibid, pp.161-2
Photograph by Vlad Tchompalov